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Roger Barbee: An education for what?

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By Roger Barbee

Being at that age when there are more years behind me than ahead for me, I have been looking, among other things, at my education during the 1950s and 1960s. I graduated from high school in 1964 and college in 1968, all from public institutions. In 1988 I finally added a graduate degree, also from a public institution. What has engendered this examination is my part-time work at a local high school and an article I read recently discussing the value of teaching or not teaching cursive writing.

Like everyone else, I have watched as the explosion of the Internet has taken place. In 1995, I had never used a computer for any purpose, but now one is a part of my every day life. Until 2001, I had never used a cell phone, but there is now one in my shirt pocket all of the time. Sometimes I even text someone in response and can manage, with some concentration, to send a photograph by my cell phone.

I mention these two tools of modern day life for a point: none of my teachers in the two decades of my schooling had any notion that me, their student, would be required as an employee to master the basic use of a computer and be able to manage a cell phone in case of an emergency. Like everyone, I had some good teachers, some not so good, and some rather awful, but the one thing they shared was a lack of hard facts concerning the world my peers and I would encounter. And, like teachers today, how could they have anticipated the world as it is now lived? However, like those teachers, today's parents and educators may not know the hard facts of the world our children and students will encounter, but we know that they will need skills in communication and critical thinking, sprinkled with a dose of curiosity and self-confidence. (Good manners won't hurt either, but that is another topic).

In the article I alluded to earlier, Michael Hairston, the president of the Fairfax Education Association, the largest teachers' union in Fairfax County, is quoted: "Cursive writing is a traditional skill that has been replaced with technology. Educators are having to make choices about what they teach with a limited amount of time and little or no flexibility. Much of their instructional time is consumed with teaching to a standardized test."

The article also quotes Steve Graham, a top U.S. expert on handwriting instruction: "The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s."

Well, I question the reasoning behind both of these quotations.

Way back in high school, I took a semester typing course under Mrs. Hamrick. I remember sitting and trying day after day to become more proficient with the machine. I think we students were told to try for 50 words per minute without any errors. I took the course because I was told to, not that I was planning on ever using that acquired skill in work. But, wouldn't you know it, that summer my boss in the weave room of the cotton mill found out I could type, and he pulled me off the dirty, noisy floor and put me in the clean, quiet office to type employment records. (Thank you, Mrs. Hamrick).

The keyboard I use to type this sentence is easier than the typewriter I used in 1963, and it has apps that make suggestions and even corrections, but working to master 50 words per minute gave me a sense of accomplishment because it was I who did the vast majority of the work, not the machine. And when that skill helped me earn money, it was even better.

Any acquired skill that requires concentration, thought, and work will benefit every child because those three will be required in anyone's future life. That is why I believe every child should be required to learn to write cursive because it is an acquired skill, like mastering the multiplication tables, that will last a lifetime, help a child's self-confidence, and give each child the skill to sign a check or contract in the future.

Technology is great, even as I use it, but so are many skills being put aside by today's educational experts who have no crystal ball to the future or to the blessed standardized test.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.



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