Friday, September 23, 2016
Curse you, cursive!
When I am visiting local congregations -- as a preacher -- there are times when someone will come up and ask if I could send them a copy of my sermon. As ego-stroking as that is, I have to tell them that I don't have a "computer-ready" version. The reason is that I hand-write 90% of my sermons (most of the rest are simply bullet-points). After the shock wears off, they say "YOU DO??? STILL????" And I go on to say that I use a #2 Ticonderoga pencil, kept sharp with a small hand-pencil-sharpener. I have found that composing on a computer (at least given my sermon-writing process) leads to multiple, un-necessary, edits, as well as loss-of-train-of-thought.
Imagine my surprise when I heard an conversation earlier this week that seemed to confirm my own experience. Brian Lehrer, a talk-show host with WNYC, was interviewing Tamara Plakins Thorton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 1998), and Cheryl Lundy-Swift, National Workshop leader for Handwriting Without Tears. Both reported on the frequency with which they heard critiques of teaching cursive, and the various reasons that schools were eliminating that skill in favor or either "keyboarding" or "printing". Yet they also presented research that suggested that the act of writing was both quicker and more efficient than the other options, as well as aiding creativity and thought-production! It was this last point that had me patting myself on the back! So, my personal experience confirmed, I turned my attention back to the interview. What I heard was that three states, two from the deep South as well as California, have passed laws requiring cursive to be taught in the public schools --- in defiance of the move away from that requirement in the Common Core. And the discussion turned to an analysis of WHY those states would take such action. Prof. Thornton's analysis was that the emphasis on teaching cursive (and there have been more than one period where this has been the case) coincides with some deeper social unrest. In other words, a "return" to cursive is a attempt to re-create a time when things were more cohesive, or simple, or orderly. Or, the states are using one methodology to deal with a quite un-related problem (at least according to Thornton). This is certainly not an unusual phenomenon. Over and over again we hear of politicians (on either side of the aisle) who will bury a fairly significant amendment in a piece of legislation. The hope is that the necessary votes will carry the bill -- because it's "important" or popular, and that the amendment will slide along the same track (even though, on its own, it mightn't stand a chance). In a slightly similar vein, historians of the Roman Catholic Church have pointed out that the two "infallible" dogmatic pronouncements made about the Virgin Mary (her Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption) -- both pronouncements made since the mid-19th century -- coincide with social upheavals in the wider world (the rise of modernism in the first case, and the threat of communism in the second). These historians would argue that a more "conservative" devotion to Mary might counter some of the more "radical" notions pressing on the Church. Given the significant problems we face in the country/world today, it seems to me that this kind of "smoke and mirrors" way of dealing with problems is quite counter-productive. Not only does it leave the real issue out-of-the-picture; it hides the motivations of those proposing the "solutions." And, it suggests we don't have the social capital to have honest conversations about matters of significance -- and that may indeed be the case. If it is, we have much more significant things to address, as citizens and/or people of faith, than the merits of cursive handwriting (despite its positive impact on my sermon-writing). And we must sharpen our pencils to sketch out, collaboratively, creative solutions to those larger problems. Pencils at the ready! Go!