I try to stay away from all those quizzes on Facebook. I don’t really need to know which fantasy character I am or what my career should be (I think it’s a little late for another change at this point). But I can’t resist the ones that give me a chance to show how smart I am. Of course, I’m selective. After all, I want to reinforce my self-image (matching authors to titles, vocabulary), not be reminded of what I don’t know (music, art, film). Recently a lot of Geography quizzes have come across my news feed, shared by high school friends, who also are happily reassured that our faculties are not failing yet. We had to study Geography as a separate class for an entire year (7th grade), and although a lot has changed since then, the states and capitals are still the same, as are the locations of continents. We also were taught to read newspapers and magazines for information and to place on a mental map the area under discussion. Thus, I believe our training has allowed us to keep up with the moving boundaries and changing names, despite the media’s efforts to eliminate such extraneous information in favor of celebrity updates.
I plan at some future date to rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or on-line, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. For now, my thoughts are back in those golden years of primary and secondary education. Remember that separate class in “Civics”? We learned how the government works. Of course, now that we are older we know how it REALLY works, but at least we understand the ideal. When asked the three branches of government, my classmates and I are not likely to respond, “Police Department, Fire Department, and Post Office,” one current student’s answer.
Geography, Civics, History: all now combined into “Social Studies,” and all given short shrift. At least the vestiges remain. The subject that is on the brink of extinction is Handwriting. No more circling with the clutched pencil, no more letters with fancy loops tacked above the blackboard, no more lined paper to show where the tops (and bottoms) of the letters should go. The handwritten report has yielded to the keyboard. The tortured hours spent obeying those lines, remembering where the loops went, correctly connecting the letters (I still can’t deal with “j” and “q”) did not create a society with lovely, legible penmanship. Everyone developed their own style, from flowing to chicken scratching. Or is it our own style? I have observed that my handwriting is amazingly like my father’s. My son’s is an almost an exact match for his father, who died before he was born. My husband tells me that his writing resembles that of one of his aunts’. Whether our penmanship is genetic or acquired, all those circles and worksheets had little impact on what our cursive writing looks like now.
Still, we learned cursive writing. Handwritten notes in class and handwritten reports were the norm, because there was no alternative. I remember getting extra credit for typewritten reports in high school, having been fortunate enough to be able to take a touch-typing class and to have been given a typewriter as a gift from my godfather. (One aside from this early feminist: The best piece of advice I was given upon graduation from college was never to admit that I could type. I would wind up with a typist’s job no matter what I was really hired to do. I kept my secret, but saw what happened to those who didn’t.)
Now “keyboarding” is a required subject, and students take notes on little tablets (but not with chalk!). The report is spell-checked, there are no “white-outs," and the printed form is required. The advantages are obvious: neater work, teachers who can focus on the content of the submission rather than trying to decipher it, students who can easily edit without rewriting pages and pages. However, the advantages of using the keyboard rather than the pen to take notes seem to be coming into question.
I have always enjoyed the physical act of writing and find myself at times copying quotations I want to remember in longhand rather than cutting and pasting or typing. The words seem to find a place in my brain when laboriously copied. I am an inveterate note taker and list maker. Once I have written something with pen and paper, it stays with me whether or not I ever look at the paper again. When notes or lists or dates are entered on the phone, it’s as if I never saw them. And I don’t have the discipline to rigorously check my little machine. I assumed that this was one of the many quirks of this odd, out-of-touch relic of a former time. Some recent research indicates that my “quirk” is the way the human mind works, and that the substitution of keyboards for pens in note-taking may not be one of the improvements technology has brought us.
An article in The Washington Post last April entitled “Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes” described studies showing that students typing notes were inclined to write verbatim what they heard, with the brain as a pass-through device between ear and hand. Those who took notes the slower, old-fashioned way, had to synthesize and summarize the information, picking up on key words and ideas, thus engaging parts of the brain beyond those needed for the mechanics of typing. In addition, those students frequently “recopied” their notes as a form of study, filling in what they were unable to get on paper the first time, thus reinforcing the information.
It would seem then that those who use electronic devices should slow down and use their brains in the same way as those writing in longhand. Easier said than done. Research subjects found it difficult if not impossible to stop typing verbatim notes, and other research has shown that the hand has a “unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas.” So my use of handwritten notes to implant information in my brain is not a quirk, but the way the human body is wired.
New technologies lead to the temptation to throw away the older methods which appear to be of no further use. Physical books seem (to some) no longer necessary. (You knew I’d get to that, didn’t you?) Teaching cursive writing has been belittled as a waste of time. It would be better to use the old and the new, each for the tasks to which they are best suited. Use the laptop for creating legible, well-edited papers and reports; but teach the young to write by hand so that they can use the full capacity of the brain. And maybe a little Geography and Civics wouldn’t hurt.