Home Richard K. Rein Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic — Revised

Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic — Revised

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So now the experts are saying that technology — everything from keyboards to touch screen smart phones — is leading to a decline in the art of handwriting. It’s become an endangered capability of the human species. Handwriting seems to be going the way of civility in public discussions and gracious winning in sports.

In China the experts report that fewer children are being taught the fine art of hand drawn letters. Public schools in the U.S. are abandoning the practice of teaching kids to graduate from block printing to cursive writing, and instead are letting the young scholars seek their own level of penmanship. In my own household I hear my kids speak and they seem poised beyond their years. I read their word-processed essays and they seem far more sophisticated than what I could have managed at that age.

But when I size up their handwriting — usually just a signature when they are signing a school permission form or endorsing a check — I see a scrawl that has the physical articulation that I would expect from a fourth grader.

And I look at my own handwriting and it seems noticeably less elegant than a few decades ago, when I was jotting down hundreds and sometimes thousands of words of hand-written notes every week. And my hand was hard at work not just trying to capture words spoken in an interview or a press conference; I was also painstakingly writing down excerpts from magazine articles, books, or primary sources — a police blotter, for example, or the town assessor’s record of real estate transactions. Cutting and pasting from those documents would have landed you in the slammer, usually just a few feet away from the treasured documents.

These days pencils are used so infrequently that the erasers may dry out before the lead is used up. We are soaring in the information age, but our penmanship looks like something out of the stone age.

The sorry state of handwriting, I believe, is not unlike the reduced standards for some other critical elements of our communication capabilities. The changes are so great that I think it’s time we re-define some of our basic vocabulary to reflect the harsh new reality of the information age. Three words, in particular, need to be redefined:

Reading. This word has been in flux for a long time, as any teacher can tell you. Nowadays ask someone if they read a story or an E-mail, and if they answer “yes” they might mean simply that they had opened the document in their browser, seen it, perhaps identified the subject matter, and possibly even scrolled through it looking for easily identifiable take-away points.

The new definition of reading should be kept in mind when using E-mail. Who hasn’t opened an E-mail, “read” it, and then responded with a question that is in fact answered in the original E-mail? We overlooked the answer, of course, because it appeared below the window that was visible when we first opened the E-mail. Savvy E-mailers are now structuring E-mails to guide the recipients to the salient content. “Thanks for your proposal. I have two specific questions, one correction to offer, and one new concern to be addressed.”

Writing. Not so many years ago writing was a chore that ranked just beneath public speaking on the anxiety scale. Lots of us worked through writer’s block by putting pencil to paper (often a yellow legal pad), and jotting down thoughts in hopes that they would lead to a graceful opening and an elegant structure.

Since a substantial number of us no longer know what “putting pencil to paper” is, or lack the manual dexterity to do it, we should not be surprised to see the writing process begin by someone Googling a subject or looking it up on Wikipedia, highlighting some relevant passages, and then pasting into a word processing document.

Various journalists and academics have been accused of plagiarism in recent years. I, for one, am convinced that many of the offenses were totally unintentional — writers were simply, well, “writing,” in the new meaning of the word, and in their assembling of content for their work simply lost track of what had been copied and pasted verbatim and not yet been subjected to their re-writing.

Even worse, from the reader’s point of view, is writing that flows on forever, unshaped by anything other than where the mouse directed the cursor to be at the moment of pasting a block of text. Before word processing and easy access to the encyclopedic resources of the Internet, we shaped articles by literally cutting and pasting, and when we rewrote we also re-typed, a process that forced us literally to review our work word by word. And if that weren’t enough, most of us were writing to fit within a finite space. The best stories were not just written, they were re-written. And then they were subjected to a sometimes harsh process that itself has taken on a new meaning.

Editing. An editor is to a writer as a knife is to a throat, someone once said. It’s not such a bad analogy when you think of an editor poised over an article, pencil in hand, ready to strike at the next errant word or misplaced phrase.

The new definition of editing is not so brutal. In fact it’s a graceful, fluid, and largely benign exercise that often coincides with the reading process, as it is now defined. You read the article — that is you open the document in your word processor — and then you edit it — first by activating the spell checker and then by inserting whatever special commands you must to ready the document for the printer or the webmaster.

That’s where this column stands now. I hope you will spend more time reading it — by any definition of the word — than I will spend “editing” it.

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