Aug 15 2015
I was extremely disturbed recently to learn that there are educational jurisdictions within Canada, (and elsewhere around the world, of course, but I’m Canadian so my concern lies here,) where the decision has been made to stop teaching children the art of cursive writing. That’s handwriting, folks, in case the term ‘cursive’ isn’t front and centre in your daily vocabulary; it’s the kind of writing that involves holding a pen or a pencil in your own hand and setting words down directly onto paper.
The movie Field of Dreams taught us that “If you build it, they will come,” but that movie was a fantasy. The reality entailed in the foregoing decision, though, is that “If you don’t teach it, soon no one will know how to do it.”
As a professional writer—and probably a professional dinosaur in the eyes of many—I find that appalling. And as a novelist I find it provocative in the most frightening sense of “what if?” What if there’s a war, thirty years from now, and some unforeseen opponent triggers the kind of detonation known as a Nuclear EMP, an electromagnetic pulse? The weapons have existed for decades already, we’re told, and a high altitude EMP detonation could disable all electronic communications and machinery in a targeted area. Science fiction? I don’t know, but if it ever happens, far enough down the road, we’ll have a country full of technologically deprived people who don’t know how to write. The great thing about technology: when it’s working properly, we all benefit from it; but when it breaks down, we’re all back to staring into the fire while we wait for some expert to come along and fix things for us.
I simply cannot visualize a world in which nobody knows how to write by hand. It makes no sense to me that anyone—and in particular anyone involved in the area of education—should advocate such a drastic and potentially tragic change in the fundamental elements of human communication. I’m not talking about the top, elitist point five percentile of the ultra rich, here, I’m talking about my own grandchildren and their descendants who won’t know how to write or even how to hold a pen or pencil. Once that knowledge, that lore, those skills involved in handwriting, have gone, they’ll be lost forever.
“Who cares?” comes the answer. “They used to say the same about allowing kids to use calculators instead of pencils.” That’s true, and all I can do is shrug. But when I go into a store and buy a number of small items, do the arithmetic in my head and tally the amount I owe correctly while the sales assistant is still trying to calculate the amount on a hand held electronic device, they look at me as if I’m certifiable, obviously wondering what kind of freakish weirdo I am.
My wife and I had dinner at one of the local wineries last spring, and soon after we arrived at the restaurant, after placing our order but before we could be served dinner, there was a landslide a few miles away along the lakeshore that resulted in a total loss of power throughout the area. The computers went down. The lights went out. Orders couldn’t be placed, retrieved or processed by the kitchen. The floor service staff were flummoxed, because the place was full, everyone had been served drinks, many were already eating, and no one had any real idea of who owed what or how much—and even if they had known, they couldn’t process credit card transactions because, along with everything else, those terminals were down, too.
They had to shut the entire restaurant down. It was growing dark and everything was chaotic. Luckily, we had not eaten and had only drunk one glass each of the vineyard’s finest red. I paid in cash and we slipped away into the deepening twilight. One restaurant. One power failure. One disaster. And we had to go and find an open pizza joint in a part of the city that hadn’t been crippled by the outage.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I have a deep-seated mistrust of the booming technology that’s exploding all around us and I suspect I’m far from being alone in my misgivings. I hear people—putative experts—proclaiming that the entire sum of human knowledge is doubling every two years now, and that the intervals between those doublings are growing ever shorter. It doesn’t take long to say that, to make that claim, but it is an astounding thesis and I don’t know a single soul who can begin to understand its complexities. And so I’m left to seek refuge in my favourite definition of an expert, X being an unknown factor and a spurt being a drip under pressure. Ah well, I’ve never claimed to be a philosopher.