Curtain closing on cursive writing

maxresdefaultThe written word is dying.

Like dodo birds and dinosaurs, handwriting is facing extinction. Approximately 46 states have adopted the new Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of the school curriculum. Many school districts around the country are already starting to phase out handwriting courses.

Some argue this is a natural progression in educational instruction.

Everybody uses computers now, so it makes more sense to teach kids how to type on a QWERTY keyboard, right?

My gut instinct is no, handwriting is still important.

Writing in longhand connects you to your words in a way typing doesn’t. Pushing ink over paper with a pen is a unique sensation, a singular pleasure. There’s nothing quite like it.

But I honestly don’t do much handwriting anymore, and, from what I gather, neither does anyone else.

I still sign checks, but most payments are made electronically.

I write to-do lists by hand, and shopping lists. (Then again, the last two times I went to the supermarket I forgot the list, so my wife texted it to me. I shopped with phone in hand instead of a crumpled Post-It.) I handwrite thank you notes and greeting cards, and sometimes I’ll leave a dirty note and/or crude drawing in my wife’s purse for her to find later.

I edit with a pen, and make lots of handwritten notes (like this one!)

And I’ll still use pen and paper when I need to write something with a certain shape or rhythm. Sometimes I’ll write magazine coverlines by hand if I need to see how the words stack up. I write song lyrics longhand. Poetry, too (hey, no giggling!)

Ol' Honest Abe was down with cursive writing.
Ol’ Honest Abe was down with cursive writing.

I’m old enough to recall how important penmanship was in grade school.

It was never my best subject.

I remember my second grade teacher pacing the room while the class worked on cursive writing.

“Good, Sally!”

“Nice job, John!”

“Robert, your Cs are so sloppy! Stay in the lines!”

I tried, but my penmanship hasn’t improved much beyond grade school level. My mother says I have a “doctor’s signature.”

Evidently my horrendous handwriting is now in style.

Autograph seekers have found that younger stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, have barely legible signatures, while older celebrities have a more practiced hand.

“With stars ages 30 and above, they generally have a much more full, legible signature,” says Justin King, a Toronto-based paparazzi and independent autograph seller. “When you deal with these new people like Elle Fanning, you’re lucky if you get an E an F and a heart for her signature.”

My script is sloppy, but I write fast, a skill I acquired covering town council and school board meetings as a Today reporter.

You had to get the quotes right, along with the facts and figures. I even know a bit of shorthand.

Not too long ago my wife and her sisters were cleaning out their deceased father’s old office records, boxes upon boxes of ledgers filled with neatly-scripted dental records.

That’s something you’ll never see again. I felt a bit strange feeding the pages into the shredder, like I was destroying a bit of history.

Because history is written in longhand, from the Declaration of Independence, to the old tax records down at town hall, to the love letters your grandmother keeps in a box in the attic.

I suppose there comes a point when a culture needs to let go of an old-fashioned way of doing things to make way for new technology. Cave walls gave way to stone tablets, which yielded to paper, the printing press, and now, the computer screen and memory chip.

But if schools decide to no longer teach cursive writing, I hope they still teach students how to read it.

History depends on it.


College Daze: Is Higher Education Worth The Cost?

studentloan3Is it worth going to college?

The answer used to be an unequivocal “yes” — college grads got better jobs and better pay than non-graduates. But the job market is different today. The cost of getting an education has risen dramatically, while the job market has shrunk. Many young graduates find themselves with thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in debt with student loans, and few lucrative job opportunities to pay them off.

High school grads are left in a quandary. Is it worth spending four years and $100,000 to earn a bachelor’s degree, just so you can compete for a $25,000-a-year entry-level job? Wouldn’t you be better off working for four years instead, getting real world experience and a head start on the your career?

It’s a sad choice to have to make. An education is priceless, whether it helps land you a job or not. Feeding your head, expanding your base of knowledge, is perhaps the most important function a thinking being can perform. Getting smarter and growing wiser are signs of a life well lived. It’s a shame to have to put a price tag on that.

But most people do. I remember a tear-filled confrontation with my parents during my freshman year at Rutgers University. I was flunking out, not because I couldn’t handle the academic load, but because I couldn’t wake up for classes. But I was enjoying college life…a little too much.

I sat in my parents’ living room, blubbering like a fool, trying to convince them I’d do better if I transferred to Seton Hall. But SH cost three times more than Rutgers, and my father couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it. Why should he? He’d already paid for two wasted semesters at Rutgers. Why should he pay triple for me to goof off at a different school?

He was right, of course. If my parents had made me pay for college myself, I probably would have seen it their way much sooner. Instead I transferred to Rutgers Newark campus, commuted to school and worked full time. I buckled down (somewhat), though I still relied on mommy to wake me up for class. I took summer courses and was able to get my degree in a semi-respectable four-and-a-half years, and graduate with a not-too-shabby 3.0 grade point average.

Higher education has become another consumer decision, like buying a house or car. You have to consider which school offers the best value for your budget. I endorse state universities and community colleges — places where you can get a feel for college life and earn credits toward your core curriculum without spending an arm and a leg. If you do well and want to be a rocket scientist, then you can transfer to Yale or Harvard, and assume the $200K student loan. You’ll probably be able to pay it back fairly easily.

But if you’re paying $200K to get an Ivy League degree in business, education, finance, or a variety of other milquetoast majors, you’re wasting your money. There’s not enough return on your investment.

Your degree won’t be worth the kind of job you’re likely to get (if you’re lucky to get one at all). That wasn’t always the case, but it is now.

A college degree is still important. But which college it comes from — and how much you pay for it — is becoming less so. Online universities offer endless opportunities for continuing education. Internships and apprenticeships can you teach you much more about your potential career, including whether it’s worth investing money in college or specialized training.

A passion for learning and a continual quest for knowledge should be essential traits for everyone.

But a college degree, not so much anymore.

College safe zones degrade higher learning

SafeZone_LogoColleges and universities were once hotbeds of creative ideas and free expression. Students used to question abuse, question authority. Today, students request “safe zones” so they can protest “offensive” Halloween costumes, and insensitive emails.

St. Louis University is one of several institutions of higher learning where designated safe spaces are a perceived necessity among minority and LGBT students. The SLU website reports:

“Homosexuality is an invisible diversity, both in its members and its supporters. The Safe Zone program helps to create a more accepting atmosphere on campus by providing visual statements of support and safe space. Many universities from Boston College, NYU, Georgetown, and Duke to Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Missouri have already implemented similar programs.”

But safe zones threaten free speech. Missouri journalists were twice barred from covering college protests, according to Safe zones also create complex new job responsibilities for college employees. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators are being asked to step in and resolve conflicts among students instead of letting young adults fight their own battles.

I attended Rutgers University in the mid-80s, and there was nothing safe about it. (Except possibly the sex. It was the height of the AIDS scare, so people used protection.) There were many LGBT students on campus. Everybody knew where LGBT students hung out, and if you wanted to hang out with them, nobody judged you.

Safe Zone Image

For me, college was an unsafe zone. It was a place where I experimented, explored, and royally messed up. Hard partying landed me on academic probation after my first year, with a paltry 0.7 GPA.

That was when I learned to buckle down and take academics seriously. I learned the consequences of goofing off, and I took responsibility for my life choices. I still made time for tons of fun, but I learned to finish my schoolwork first.

And I did it well. By the time I graduated, I elevated my lowly 0.7 GPA to a respectable 3.0. It was hard work, but that’s the entire point. A good education should push you to your limits and beyond. If it’s easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The most valuable lesson I learned in college was a simple one. Hard work pays off.

You can’t cut corners. If you do something, do it well. I learned how to be a major-league screw-up in college. But I also learned I could produce quality work if I set my heart and mind to it.

The college experience should be about taking risks, some smart and calculated, others blindingly stupid. Safe zones, language police, and other safety nets of the “bubble-wrap generation” take that risk away. We live in a “bully culture,” where everyone is a victim, even if they merely find themselves in “an uncomfortable situation.”

From Notre Dame University
From Notre Dame University

But uncomfortable situations are an essential part of life! How can young adults (or any living thing) develop and grow without occasionally stepping outside the comfort zone, if only to help define where exactly the comfort zone lies? Comfort zones change with time, age, and experience.

All colleges and universities are “safe zones” — places where young people can experiment, fail, succeed, and find out who they truly are without the emotional or financial responsibility of a home or family. There are still plenty of worthy causes for college students to protest in this country. This generation needs a better one than hurt feelings.



Wimpy School Closings A Sign Of The Times

Get to class, whippersnappers! There were no "extreme weather" days when I was a kid. We walked to school in blizzards! With no boots! Uphill! Both ways!
Get to class, ya wimpy whippersnappers! There were no “extreme weather” days when I was a kid. We walked to school in blizzards! With no boots! 

Both of my kids had a delayed opening today due to two inches of slush. Wimpy! This was first published in June 2008 ,but it works just as well in March 2013.

My cell phone rang just after 9:30 on Sunday night, as I was putting my son to bed. It was an automated message from his school district.

“Due to extreme weather conditions, all students and staff will have early dismissal tomorrow.”

I asked my wife about it after Rocco was tucked in.

“What extreme weather?” I asked.

“It’s supposed to be 100 degrees tomorrow,” she said.

I shook my head, figuring this was another cheap excuse for Rocco’s school to cancel classes. They’re famous for it. They’ve called snow days when there was nothing more than frost on the ground. They’ve cancelled class based on a forecast of snow.

So I was surprised when I took my daughter to school the next day and found that our local district was only having a half-day as well.

“It’s going to be 100 degrees today,” the teacher offered.

“Doesn’t the air conditioner work?” I knew my daughter had a window unit in her classroom.

“Yes, but not all of the classrooms are air conditioned, so…” she let the sentence fade, hoping my questions would, too.  They did. It was too hot to argue.

Back in my day … 

But I started thinking back to my elementary school days. A school cancellation was rare. There might be a couple of snow days each winter, but it really had to snow. I remember shoveling our driveway just so my Mom could drive me to class. Today, anything more than a dusting results in a delayed opening if not a full day off. They closed school for a couple of days in April 1984 when half of Pequannock Township was flooded. That was a big deal. Other than that I have scant memories of school closings.

“Do you ever remember them canceling school when you were a kid because it was too hot?” I asked my wife.  She shook her head. “Never.” Neither could I.

But I had plenty of memories of sweating it out during June finals, dripping perspiration onto those blue essay books or onto those nightmarish Scantron forms (use a No. 2 pencil, and color the circle completely!) If it got really hot, they’d prop open the windows and bring in giant standing fans that looked (and sounded) like jet engines to blow the warm air around. One year the school board allowed students to wear shorts during finals week, and we were all appreciative of this magnanimous gesture.

What happened in the years since I was in grade school? When did school administrators —and students—become so…wimpy, so willing to cancel class at the slightest hint of inclement weather?  I realize I sound like an old curmudgeon (“Back in my day, Sonny, we walked to school…uphill…both ways!”) but something has gone sour—and soft—with our educational system.

Coddled Kids, Sleazy Lawyers

My guess is that lawyers are at the root of this problem (as they are so many).  Some student, somewhere, overheated and passed out during a hot June class, and the parents sued the school for negligence. Now all schools—certainly in this area, and probably across the country—have adopted overly ambitious “safety first” policies.

These policies are more about avoiding lawsuits than about protecting students. It’s easy to sue someone in this country (or something, like a school board or a business) and expensive to defend yourself. Even if you win you could face a big financial loss—a good defense attorney costs money. It’s better to prevent a problem before it starts. Cancel classes for everybody rather than risk one student slipping on a patch of ice, or getting dehydrated on a hot day.

Whether this policy is better or not is debatable (hey, I don’t want it to be my kid who slips on ice). But the society we live in makes it a moot point; too many lawyers and too many frivolous lawsuits have eroded all need for personal responsibility. If you’re careless or klutzy it’s not your fault. Make someone else pay.

One solution to these “extreme weather “ cancellations would be to mandate that all public schools have central air conditioning. It makes sense, since many schools operate year-round for summer sessions anyway.  Yes, it would be a big budget expense (at a time when school budgets are shrinking) but it would be offset by not having to close school two or three days a year.

Looking back on it, I probably should have become a teacher. You get home early each day, have summers off, and get plenty of bonus days for bad weather and the ever-popular  “teachers convention.”

Better yet, I should have gone to grad school and become a lawyer.

Then I wouldn’t have to do anything constructive at all.

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, June 2008

5 Things They Should Teach In High School

The students of Beverly Hills 90210 didn't learn much in high school, but that's okay—their parents had money.
The students of Beverly Hills 90210 didn’t learn much in high school, but that’s okay—their parents had money.

My last column was about the demise of cursive writing, how many school districts are phasing out longhand in favor of teaching kids how to type on keyboards.

I’ll begrudging admit it makes sense – everybody needs to know computer basics these days. But it got me thinking about other changes that are needed in the current school curriculum.

Back in my day, you had the option of taking a driver’s education course through the public high school (which offered the uniquely weird experience of cruising around town with your gym teacher riding shotgun). Driver’s Ed was a nice option to have, but I understand it’s not offered in many (any) schools these days. You have to hire a private instructor instead.

I appreciated learning a basic life skill like driving a car in public high school, but I realized in the decade following graduation there were still a lot of life skills to learn. Here are the top five things I wish I’d learned in high school (or college…or anytime in my twenties would have been nice.)

5 Things Graduating Seniors Should Know How To Do

1) Buying a car. It’s probably the first major purchase people make in their adult lives, yet many are clueless about buying and owning a vehicle, the terms of an auto lease, or how to register your car, and get an inspection sticker. You should learn how to maintain and care for your vehicle, too. Things of value need to be cared for.

2) Buying a house. From choosing a mortgage to assessing a property, there are a million and one things to know when buying a home. There are an equal number of pitfalls and mistakes to make, too. I made several hundred thousand mistakes buying my first home, and a bunch more buying my second.

3) Personal finance. Opening a bank account. Paying bills. Managing credit cards. Balancing a household budget. I really, really wish someone had taught me about this stuff when I was a teenager. My parents did their best, but I wasn’t a very apt pupil. I was taught nothing about personal finance in high school aside from a few word problems in math class. I still don’t know how the stock market works, but from what I gather, neither does anybody else.

4) Marriage & family. There’s a gap between home economics (baking, sewing, etc.) and health class (human biology and reproduction) that needs to be filled. You could devote an entire semester to “wedding planning” if you wanted. I’d rather see the course dig into the meat of marriage, the expectations and potential pitfalls, and how children impact a relationship. Not everyone gets married and starts a family, but many do. Half of those end in divorce. Maybe that number wouldn’t be so high if young adults got some basic training.

5) How to pick a college/write a resume/interview for a job. Maybe there should be separate courses for each of these subjects, but they’re all leading to the same place. You’re going to have to do something after school, and chances are good you’ll have to interview for a job. It’s hard to get by without one. The whole point of standardized education is to create fine upstanding citizens that contribute to society. I think colleges should offer more internships and apprenticeships. Students should work in their field of interest before deciding on a major. Then you’ll create a workforce that enjoys giving back to its community.

As I said, I owe a lot of my practical education to my family, Mom and Dad, along with my brothers and sisters. Friends taught me a lot, too. I’m fortunate because I had those things. Not everyone does. That’s why public schools need to step up. You might not need to know cursive writing anymore, but there’s still a lot to learn

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2011