Opinion: Looking ahead: Technology may be making some traditions obsolete

Holidays seem to have an odd two-edged effect on people. Unarguably they are times for celebration, but also seem to stir a psychic brew of melancholy and sentimentality. No time of year more than the great holiday corridor between Thanksgiving a...

Holidays seem to have an odd two-edged effect on people.

Unarguably they are times for celebration, but also seem to stir a psychic brew of melancholy and sentimentality. No time of year more than the great holiday corridor between Thanksgiving and New Year's. While driving my mother to a Thanksgiving dinner a little more than a month ago, she and I began talking about the Thanksgiving get-togethers we had when I was a small child. Silently, I asked myself how many people who were present at my first Thanksgiving holiday would be present this year. The answer was one, my mother. My brothers were all in different parts of the country with their nuclear families and everyone else that qualified was, well, dead.

Dramatic changes, from one end of life, seem to take a very long time. From the opposite end, they don't take much time at all. In my office, I have nine framed photographs of family members who have worked in education. (It's sort of the family business.) When I came to Mitchell eight and a half years ago, I could pick up a phone and talk to five of them about how they felt on some issue of school curriculum or discipline. Today, there is only one, that same one, my mother.

When I started in education, I would not have said that dramatic changes can occur fairly quickly. It's still a bit hard to admit today given the fact that the schedule, the calendar, the classes, the grades, the everything seem pretty much the same from year to year. (It is sometimes said that if Socrates came back from the dead today, he could walk into a schoolroom today and pretty much pick up with his questions where he left off.) But if I look back at even the relatively few years I have been in the field, some pretty significant changes have occurred.

Typing classes, for example, are gone. We do some computer keyboarding but most students have already been on the keyboard so long by the time they get to school, or at least to the keyboarding class, that the effort is becoming increasingly futile. With typing have also gone the various clerical courses, like stenography and dictation. But knowing what is gone is easy. The more difficult task is trying to figure out how curriculum will change in the future.


Though such pedagogical prognostication is particularly problematical, it can nevertheless be both entertaining (like alliteration!) and useful. Useful because one of the great challenges in education is how to keep adding new material to be learned within the same number of instructional hours. It's not possible, in fact, without deleting what has become obsolete. While I am not advocating that either of these topics be driven from the curriculum (in fact I would mourn both), I can nevertheless see the very real possibility that one or both will be.

The first is cursive writing. For my grandmother's generation, cursive penmanship was an art form. I am still intrigued when I find a letter from her in a scrapbook that a person in her 80s with all sorts of ailments could write with such a beautiful hand while her younger, abler grandson can't scrawl a legible grocery list to save his life. Yet, it is very possible that cursive writing will go the way of mastering the slide rule. Students, who learned to keyboard practically in infancy, will be taught to print and, possibly, to write their name in cursive letters and that will be that. Perhaps.

The second is orthography, aka spelling. Prior to just the last few years, I would have never believed this and still can't stomach it. But the fact remains that the irresistible forces of youth and technology are increasingly making correct spelling a misnomer. The idea that such a thing as "correct" spelling exists is a fairly modern concept. When the First Folio of William Shakespeare's work was assembled and printed in the early 17th century, nine different typesetters worked on the collection. Scholars have arrived at this number, in large part, by looking at spelling 'preferences' within the document. In other words, the most skilled literary people of the age didn't make spelling mistakes because there was no agreed upon spelling of words. Today, adding to the already serious onslaught against correct spelling from advertising is the incursion into digital communications of abbreviations, acronyms, and iconography. Perhaps this trend will simply add new words to the language. It is equally likely, however, that it will have the net effect of simply eroding any sense of what it means to spell accurately or why such a goal is to be valued.

So, at a time of year when it is traditional to make predictions for the future, these are mine. It seems hard to imagine that we could ever strike two such fundamental areas of study from school curricula but, again, what looks impossible from one end can look inevitable from the other.

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