Monday, September 27, 2010

The lost art of handwriting - Umberto Eco

Speaking of the stop teaching handwriting in school or not issue, would you believe it? It appears I am once again well behind the program on this one. The following is a piece written by Umberto Eco and published in The Guardian on Monday, 21 September 2009 (a year ago almost to the day). Needless to say I am of his way of thinking.

The days when children were taught to write properly are long gone. Does it matter? Yes, says Umberto Eco

Recently, two Italian journalists wrote a three-page newspaper article (in print, alas) about the decline of handwriting. By now it's well-known: most kids – what with computers (when they use them) and text messages – can no longer write by hand, except in laboured capital letters.
In an interview, a teacher said that students also make lots of spelling mistakes, which strikes me as a separate problem: doctors know how to spell and yet they write poorly; and you can be an expert calligrapher and still write "guage" or "gage" instead of "gauge".
I know children whose handwriting is fairly good. But the article talks of 50% of Italian kids – and so I suppose it is thanks to an indulgent destiny that I frequent the other 50% (something that happens to me in the political arena, too).
The tragedy began long before the computer and the cellphone.
My parents' handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today's standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It's obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written as they should be.
My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters. The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks, notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to clean.
The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared. And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no longer had soul, style or personality.
Why should we regret the passing of good handwriting? The capacity to write well and quickly on a keyboard encourages rapid thought, and often (not always) the spell-checker will underline a misspelling.
Although the cellphone has taught the younger generation to write "Where R U?" instead of "Where are you?", let us not forget that our forefathers would have been shocked to see that we write "show" instead of "shew" or "enough" instead of "enow". Medieval theologians wrote "respondeo dicendum quod", which would have made Cicero recoil in horror.
The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination.
The three-page article pointed out that writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm.
It's true that kids will write more and more on computers and cellphones. Nonetheless, humanity has learned to rediscover as sports and aesthetic pleasures many things that civilisation had eliminated as unnecessary.
People no longer travel on horseback but some go to a riding school; motor yachts exist but many people are as devoted to true sailing as the Phoenicians of 3,000 years ago; there are tunnels and railroads but many still enjoy walking or climbing Alpine passes; people collect stamps even in the age of email; and armies go to war with Kalashnikovs but we also hold peaceful fencing tournaments.
It would be a good thing if parents sent kids off to handwriting schools so they could take part in competitions and tournaments – not only to acquire grounding in what is beautiful, but also for psychomotor wellbeing. Such schools already exist; just search for "calligraphy school" on the internet. And perhaps for those with a steady hand but without a steady job, teaching this art could become a good business.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stop teaching handwriting in school, do not

A few weeks ago I fell on an article written by a professor proposing that we stop teaching handwriting in school. I will not link to it, but if you Google it you are sure to find it. Her son was having trouble writing certain letters at school and she found, after a brief overview of the history of writing, that the time had come to move on to electronic writing methods and she ended with a fling at writing as so much pushing of a graphite stick in various directions. When I finished reading this, if I had had immediate access to the comments section, I would certainly have written that this was the stupidest idea I had ever heard in my entire life. I might have added something like, is your son also having trouble with art at school? Perhaps we should stop teaching art as well, we have computer graphics programs now, and after all it is just so much pushing around a paintbrush in various directions.
I was quite shocked at my reaction, at the strong emotions I felt, and of course I realised that that was partly the author’s intention: to be provocative. I then decided it did not merit serious thought or a serious reply and moved on.
Since then I have noticed that my post The importance of good handwriting is quite popular and I am constantly reminded of the contrary article. I have found myself mulling it over. Then I began to think (cue heavenly light) that perhaps it fell to me to reply to the article (cue singing angels), that my entire life up to now had brought me to this moment (cue dark clouds of doubt parting), that my blog was the perfect vehicle (cue sun), and that my blog post on this subject might be read by some young impressionable mind and it would encourage him to persevere in his handwriting technique and he would go on to become a second Shakespeare who would influence an entire generation…  (OK, cut the heavenly light, angels: take 15). 
I am not a professor, nor a writer; I am just a guy with a blog but I will tell you what I think off the top of my head and you will be the judge.
I find it sad and surely irresponsible that an educator should hold such a mistaken view (and encourage others to hold it) but I suppose it is a sign of the times. There will always be people impatient for change and impatient of the old ways. I know because I have acted in that way in my time also, unfortunately. It is the lot of impatient youth.
But it seems to me that learning how to write is the basic building block of education. And no matter how easy to use and ubiquitous the electronic tablet becomes, pen and paper will always be necessary and indeed an art form. Necessary because pen and paper are (almost) always to be had - computers, tablets, electricity and batteries are not. Use those other electronic forms by all means, but handwriting has to be there to fall back on. I am not going to belabour the point, it seems so obvious to me. I am sure you can think of a hundred situations where a written message is the best or the only way.
It also seems to me reprehensible that an educator should undermine children’s resolve to learn how to write by hand and also parents’ efforts to help and encourage them. Perhaps it is more difficult for some children than others, but if we were to choose what should be taught in school on that basis where would we be? There is something to be said for the process of overcoming difficulties and personal inclination and mastering a useful skill by perseverance.
Civilization has come the long road through many a dark brutal age to the point where literacy is possible for everyone today and the suggestion to abandon the written word in school after so many have struggled and fought to bring literacy to the world would be to do them and our children a great disservice.
But my real argument has more to do with this ‘fling it down the gutter’ attitude to all the old ways of doing things. I must sound very much like the baby boomer I am as I write this, but I do assure you in my time the shoe was on the other foot as you can read in my last post about handwriting. I have evolved, my attitude has changed, for the better I hope. The computer and the advance of technology is not the secret of happiness. People are less happy today than they were 50 years ago. All the twitters and e-mails you may send your friends may be fun, but I doubt they give as much pleasure as our ancestors (parents, grand parents!) enjoyed when they received a single thoughtful (handwritten) letter.
I am not against technology or progress. I have a blog don’t I? I am simply saying that not every technological advance is necessarily an advance for human happiness. Technology has to be used wisely, usefully, reasonably. And respect for the old ways is a virtue. A well-written, thoughtful letter is an art form in itself. Where there is no art in daily life, there is no life. No life worth the living.
I am reminded of something I read about the art of the Japanese Zen garden. The author was talking about how one might apply to a (Japanese) Zen garden master to become his pupil. He gave the master’s postal address. He advised that it might take some weeks or even months to receive an answer. Zen garden masters did not have faxes, still less computers.
I am sure they are quite, quite happy without them.

Read more about the lost art of letter writing at Proverbs 31 maiden.

Image: ‘Winter’s Child’ by Lucia

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Ching therefore I Pod - new update for Yi Jing app

In June I received a nice e-mail from Brian Arnold, president of Flat Earth Studio, the developer of the Yi Jing application I use on my I Pod. He thanked me for my kind reviews of the Yi Jing app and told me the good news: the company has now teamed up with Princeton University Press to offer the famous and definitive Wilhelm/Baynes edition of the I Ching as an update to the app. Here is an excerpt from the press release:

Princeton University Press and Flat Earth Studio are pleased to announce the newest version of the popular iPhone App, Yi Jing, now available from the iTunes App store. This major update for Yi Jing App includes new features and improved book content for additional purchase, including Princeton University Press's all-time bestselling edition of The I Ching, or Book of Changes, edited by Richard Wilhelm and translated by Cary F. Baynes. The New York Times says, "Princeton's Bollingen edition [is] still regarded as the best and most authentic by I Ching aficionados."

Yi Jing is the definitive mobile version of The I Ching, or Book of Changes, done the way it was meant to be experienced. Ancient meets modern as one of the oldest books written is re re-crafted to take advantage of the unique features of your mobile device. The updated App contains all of the features you need, including a question oracle, an integrated journal, and multiple translations and interpretations. The complete Wilhelm/Baynes text is provided for the first time in interactive readings.

"We are incredibly pleased to team up with Flat Earth Studio to make the Bollingen edition of the I Ching available in this format," said Daphne Ireland, Director of Intellectual Property at Princeton University Press. "The updated app allows fans to engage with this material in a completely unprecedented way."

See the full press release here, which provides links to Flat Earth Studio’s web sites, to iTunes, and to a YouTube video Yi Jing v2 walkthrough.

So there you have it. The already best I Ching app available just became the definitive and classic I Ching must have app. And rightly so.

On the mountain, a tree:
The image of DEVELOPMENT.
Thus the superior man abides in dignity and virtue,
In order to improve the mores.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Base jumping with The Snowman

I have just discovered the following video that combines a little masterpiece of a song with a little masterpiece of an animation from Howard Blake’s little 1982 masterpiece ‘The Snowman’. I thought about saving it to post later this Christmas but it is just too good to deprive you of for any length of time.
So here it is. It captures so well those times of our childhood when Christmas was filled with magic and wonder; times when there was so much about this world we didn’t know or understand that the line between what was real and what was imagined, the possible and the impossible, was yet to be drawn.
For today’s children that line must be ever and ever more tenuous. A child today can watch this video and decide that he wants to experience walking in the air. He can base jump with the Snowman. Perhaps a video like this one inspired our own Halvor Angvik to become a base jumper. If you read this Halvor, how about putting this music to one of your next videos? Maybe it will inspire some young minds.

For a funky club mix twist to this music I doubt you’ll find better than this:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why is the sky dark at night? - Olber's Paradox

Here is an entry from my personal diary for Friday. Though it rambles on for a couple of paragraphs, the essence of it passed through my mind as a flash of insight lasting perhaps 10 seconds that struck me as I was on my way home from a reluctant evening walk. This is what I wrote about it when I got home (with very little editing). It is an example of the limited power of words to express what is in our mind.

The other day I saw a video – ‘Why is the sky dark at night? – about Olber’s paradox. It is a question that puzzled medieval astronomers: if the universe is infinite and has existed forever, the light from an infinite number of stars should fill every available spot in the night sky making it bright as day. The video explains that today we know that the universe is not infinitely old and therefore not all the light from all the stars has had time to get here. The narrator says ‘the darkness of the night sky is a characteristic that argues against infinity’.
Tonight as I was walking home from a walk (yes I wrote that), I had an insight as I remembered this video and phrase. The universe has not existed infinitely: it has a finite beginning. But the space existed. Something existed for there to be a big bang in. Where did those gases come from? Where did the space before the big bang come from? Wherever it came from is a place of higher being, higher intelligence, higher good. The paradox may argue against infinity, but it argues for God, for another essence beyond our comprehension. If we align ourselves with this essence, we align ourselves with creative powers and principles – with God – and we cannot go wrong. We will prosper. If not, we will not prosper (or not for long). In this we can rely, in this we can have faith. Not that we should expect everything to go our way without effort all the time. There can be no guaranteed results or there would be no life, no point, no merit. ‘Do not expect God to change the laws of nature for you’. But having faith is the correct attitude. Following the virtues as much as we can is the correct conduct. Courage, patience, love etc. Discipline also : discipline and courage are needed to harness virtue as the sailor harnesses the wind.
To know what one should do – for one’s health for one thing – and not do it is weak and stupid. To have gifts and not develop them – even moderate gifts that can become greater – is a terrible waste. To have the ability to understand virtue and not to follow it is against the intention of the higher essence, against the laws of nature, against the will of God.
To have faith in God is to have faith in oneself, since God is inside us. When we have faith in ourselves, we reward ourselves, as God. We allow ourselves to succeed, because in our hearts, our subconscious, we know that we have merited it by following the laws of nature and of God. And so it happens to us, according to our faith.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond