Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Lost Literacies

Posted by lpearle on 5 July 2012

Yesterday while going through my RSS feeds I saw this headline: Cursive slowly scribbled out of N.J. curriculums as computer skills gain value in schools.  It’s not news (the article was published on June 17th) but for whatever reason, some one (I can’t remember who) posted the link.

And, of course, it’s not news that fewer and fewer students are learning cursive, let alone any sort of handwriting.  Looking at my seniors’ handwriting is appalling — back in the day, they wouldn’t have been allowed to get out of grammar school with their handwriting the way it is, but now?  It’s fine if they have a semi-recognizable scrawl.  Whether or not they master cursive, it does teach certain graphomotor skills.  It also teaches spatial relations.  I guess those are no longer important?

But this isn’t about that – it’s about the lost literacy of reading cursive.  Letters I wrote to my parents and friends will be indecipherable to my nieces and nephews, let alone their children.  I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that in Japan, texts written over 50 years ago are becoming difficult for current students to read because the characters aren’t being used any more.  How will future generations research archives of personal papers if we “evolve” from handwriting to typewriting?  Granted, reading the handwritten notes of, say, a Founding Father, are difficult now because of all the flourishes and non-standard spelling but still, it’s not impossible.

I was thinking about another lost literacy, map reading.  With the advent of GPS people aren’t being taught how to read a map.  Me, I prefer to use maps (both those impossible to re-fold ones as well as Google/Yahoo/MapQuest) but if someone wanted to buy me this one I’d say “thanks”.  What prompted the thinking was the shuttle driver who took me from my hotel in Anaheim to LAX.

The driver was from Compton (he was quite proud of this fact, asking me if I’d heard of it – I didn’t mention that I’d listened to NWA when they first came out, probably during his toddler years, if not earlier) so not that familiar with Anaheim and the hotels.  He had a computer readout of whom to pick up where and a GPS to help him navigate from hotel to hotel.  He picked me up, entered the next address into the GPS and then took off… only to make several wrong turns.   Yes, despite the voice and the display telling him what to do, he couldn’t quite make it work.  Here’s why: he didn’t match the information he was being given to the reality around him.  Example: the voice/map tell him to take the next left onto West Street.  That’s the next street, but the next “left” is into an alley that serves as an employee entrance to Disneyland.  Rather than use some native intelligence or look at the street signs, he immediately took a left into the alley.  This happened multiple times, to the point where I was worried I’d get to the airport on time.

He’s not the only one who is overly reliant on their GPS device.  It happens to people confusing MetroNorth access entrances with their correct route. It happens to my father, who chose to use “Jill”s directions from my house to a location in New Jersey rather than the ones I, the one with local knowledge, gave him.   I didn’t ask if he’d been told to go over the two unpaved, virtually impassable roads that are the fastest way to the highway, but I did get to hear him complain about traffic – at noon – on the George Washington Bridge (my route would have taken him over the Tappan Zee, a much faster route!).

The answer isn’t to reinstate hours of handwriting training and map reading.  But to neglect these two skills in favor of computer typing and GPS listening isn’t the answer either.

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One Response to “Lost Literacies”

  1. Anchises said

    Has the widespread use of handheld devices affected our ability in simple arithmetic?

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