Summer Communiqué N°6

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No student should graduate from a school of Ridgeview’s stature without the ability to write a legible sentence. With that proposition, I begin my sixth letter of the summer to the community.

A school must have a purpose and that unfortunately is where the consensus usually ends. Until recently a school was expected to teach students to read, write, and do arithmetic. These were embarrassingly referred to as the three R’s. Yet, how worthwhile is it to teach a student to write what cannot be read? At Ridgeview we talk endlessly about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and yet the very vehicle, the medium we are most likely to use in expressing these ideas aside from art or music, is itself left undeveloped. Not only is it not thought of as beautiful, but it is not thought of as something that ought to be beautiful. Platt Rogers Spencer wrote that, “Scrawls that cannot be understood may be compared to talking that cannot be understood; and writing difficult to decipher, to stammering speech.”

Here is the difference. In contemporary education, if children stammer, they are provided with the services of an expensive speech therapist. If they cannot read, supplemental classes are prescribed to cure the tragedy of illiteracy. However, if they cannot write a single legible sentence, or if they write at seventeen much as they did at eight, we simply plod along assuring ourselves that we have grown too technologically sophisticated for such antiquarian concerns, or that this scrawl we have allowed to flourish is merely another instance of individuality. If there is nothing to be embarrassed by or ashamed of, eventually like the poor illiterates of old, some future generation of students will be reduced to marking an “X” in place of their signature.

It is not, however, only bewildered grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, and pharmacists who would appreciate a little more effort in the area of penmanship. Much of the neuroscience related to education, including those studies conducted with functional MRIs, indicate that writing and memory are linked more closely than are typing and memory. It turns out that teaching penmanship is not only good for the recipients of these little missives, but it is also good for the student who learns a steady, readable, and possibly even elegant hand. Penmanship, then, is not merely the concern of the troglodyte. Neither is it dead simply because it has been neglected.

Teaching penmanship is unlikely to destroy individuality any more than teaching a person to read or spell or draw or paint. In fact, it is rather more easily argued that to not teach handwriting is a kind of dereliction of duty. As one author writes, penmanship “has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right.” It begs a question. Would we graduate students who, in any of the myriad of ways that they might express themselves to the world, look foolish, lazy, or ignorant? The last sentence is in some respects unfair. If one visits the archives at the local museum they will discover that a great many people with far less educational opportunity than is afforded to Ridgeview’s students were expected and managed to write with an eminently legible hand. If all of this fails to move or persuade the skeptics, there are more pragmatic arguments. For instance, the United States will spend on average $11,749 per year educating each student. At a cost of $152,737 for a K-12 education, should the taxpayer not be able to read a student’s handwriting?

For a school to leave this unaddressed is not only irresponsible, but in a real way, it is a kind of fraud. Why does it go unaddressed? Certainly learning geometry must be more difficult than learning penmanship, but the feelings surrounding one’s handwriting are altogether different from one’s feelings about their mathematical abilities. As the formerly mentioned author notes, “Our attitude to our own handwriting is a peculiar mixture of shame and defiance: ashamed that it’s so bad and untutored, but defiant in our belief that it’s not our fault. What shame and defiance have in common, of course, is the determination to leave the cause of the shame or defiance unaltered.”

A school does not enjoy the luxury an individual may afford himself in the sense that it cannot identify a deficiency in its students and leave it unresolved, content to let the world sort things out. This is all the more true since it must know that the world’s way of sorting things out will often be to the disadvantage of its students. With this in mind, Ridgeview is embarking upon a concerted effort to remedy a clear deficiency in our educational program.

Next year we will be implementing a program developed by Michael Sull known simply as American Cursive Handwriting. Mr. Sull is a longtime master penman, teacher, and calligrapher. This program will be advised and coordinated with our faculty through Marie Hornback, a local handwriting expert and student of Mr. Sull. While the program will be taught primarily in the elementary and middle schools, our high school students are encouraged to make every effort to improve their handwriting. Our faculty will be instructed during teacher training not to accept work that is done sloppily or is illegible. This much is a matter of character – all of us, whatever our disposition, should have enough consideration for others that we take them into account when communicating with them. From a consideration for others, we will make small improvements, and the cumulative effect of these small improvements shall result in a change not only in the courtesy we pay one another, but in the self-improvement of every student. Perhaps, even the Christmas cards and the thank-you cards that inevitably follow will be a little easier to decipher this year.

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