Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘learning

Rethinking education: School as a vehicle for history education

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I have previously made claims along the lines that what most pupils* need to learn is Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, with the majority of the more “academic” parts of the curriculum being wasted on most pupils;** and that schools fail by ignoring*** the practical sides of life to a too high degree. (As well as a great many other criticisms.)

*Throughout, I will stick to “pupil” over “student” to indicate the comparatively low age and development, and over “children” to avoid a perceived exclusion of e.g. high-schoolers. (Generally, I tend to avoid words like “child” beginning with puberty, and often-but-inconsistently use a child–teen–adult division.) The intent is on primary and secondary education, with a gradual shift from history of a field to the field it self as the years pass. (And, often, with a shift from history in general to history of various fields. See excursion.)

**With the additional complication that those who actually benefit would typically be better able to learn on their own than in school. (Maybe, excepting the first few years of school.) I certainly was and, when time outside school allowed it, did.

***While the misguided practical education that took place during my own school years was largely wasted in, at least, my own case. I have had no practical use of either the mandatory wood-shop or textile-shop, and what I might have learned in “cooking class” (“home economics” would be too generous, but might match the official intent) came too early to (a) be of interest, (b) actually have remained with me when I began to live on my own.

As my knowledge of history has grown beyond the few hours a week provided by school, I have increasingly developed a different view, where more material (than in my old view; still less than today) is present, but with a strong emphasis on exactly history and where history is the usual entry point to the treatment of the actual subjects for those bright or old enough to benefit. Life-skills and the three Rs would remain, of course, but most* of the rest of school would deal with history—including national and world history, history of thought, history of science, history of economics, history of literature, history of this, and history of that, with a slow transition towards the this and that, per se, over time. I would recommend a particular focus on classics** studies, but do not see the focus*** as mandatory, and plenty of space must be left for the post-classical world, even should a focus be implemented.

*In some areas, even the three Rs aside, this might be too impractical. For instance, replacing physical education or a foreign language with the history of physical education, resp. the history of that language, would border on the idiotic. In other cases, some core-topic education might be necessary before its history, or the topic might need to be moved to a later year. For instance, during my own early years in school, some time was spent (wasted) on learning the names of various animals, trees, whatnot. The sensibility of this activity is disputable (cf. excursion), but replacing it with a, for that age, too specific history of biology would bring little benefit. Even in these cases, however, some degree of history of the topic might be sensible as a companion or complement.

**Assuming education in a Western context (also see excursion). In other contexts, e.g. in China, this might need modification to reflect the local equivalent. In others yet, e.g. large parts of Africa, there might be no usable local equivalent or only equivalents that are too close in time.

***However, some knowledge of ancient civilizations and works is mandatory or the entire program turns into a travesty. For instance, to deem some time frame the “modern era” and then ignore everything that came before is untenable. (Sheer lack of reliable information might force limits on non-trivial study before a certain time in a certain place, but that is a different matter entirely.)

This would naturally, to some degree, go hand in hand with knowledge of the underlying field. For instance, a discussion of the history of astronomy would naturally establish e.g. the rough structure of the heliocentric solar system and the non-heliocentric galaxy, some approximation of the age of the Earth, some understanding of the difference between the distance from London to New York and the distances from the Earth to the Moon and the Earth to the Sun, whatnot. This either because it follows directly from the natural knowledge of history or because supplementary information is provided to put the historical information into context. As the pupils grow older, history of X will fade into the background and be more of a springboard to engage with X proper—if the pupil has the brains for it.

A major intended benefit is that a pupil who is over-challenged by a core field might have a better chance at the history of the field, and less of his time will be wasted on an activity with little or no return value. (Although, as always, the duller or lazier* pupils might receive less benefit than the brighter and more industrious*.)

*I am torn between formulations like “lazier” vs. the likes of “less motivated” (ditto, m.m., the more positive phrases). The latter will often be closer to the truth , but have been used and abused by educationalists and politicians for so long that they border on being meaningless and/or on being generic and blanket terms for “does poorly in school” (no matter the reason).

A solid knowledge of history, or even the knowledge available to the weaker pupils, has many advantages, including:

  1. Inoculation against destructive ideologies and poor policies, like most variations of the Left. For instance, someone who has a solid understanding of 20th-century history and economic history is unlikely to vote for the Left (especially, the Old Left), while someone who understands the history of Europe vs. (sub-Saharan) Africa, of slavery,* of women, of civic rights, whatnot will be far less likely to fall for the propaganda of the New Left.

    *Including its historical extent (far larger and older than the “transatlantic slave trade”) and the massive inclusion of Whites and other non-Blacks, the strong Black (and other non-White) involvement in the Black slave trade, how Whites/Europeans/the U.S. North were the ones who eventually reduced and locally banned slavery, and how the South was hindered, not helped, by slavery in its economic development.

    This might to some degree extend to e.g. COVID, as someone with a knowledge of past medical practices, the effects and characteristics of past epidemics, whatnot, would be far more sceptical towards the effectiveness (let alone efficiency) of and the risk of side-effects from various counter-measures and reactions, and would have a far better understanding of how trivial COVID is relative some past epi-/pandemics.

  2. More generally, there is an aspect of learning from past errors and the mistakes of others, of not being “doomed to repeat”, etc. For instance, in politics, someone who has some understanding of the relative or absolute failures vs. successes of the economy of the Soviet Union vs. the U.S., Mao’s China vs. Deng Xiaoping’s, North- vs. South-Korea, East- vs. West-Germany, Socialist vs. pre-Socialist Venezuela, etc., is unlikely to repeat the mistakes that lead the failures to failure and likely to favor what made the successes successful.* (This includes an important general observation, with an eye at many current demands and plans: government intervention very often makes things worse—and often much worse.) For instance, in a business setting, a CEO might look at the decline of the U.S. auto industry and draw conclusions about how to and how not to handle his own business. For instance, on a more individual level, someone wise to history might note a continual clampdown on various civic rights, notably free speech, draw the right conclusions, and either begin a protest while there is still time or leave for another country.

    *To which we can add a few recent examples that are less wide in scope, e.g. the Sri Lankan crisis (mandatory “organic” farming), the U.S. lack of baby formula (a mixture of an artificial oligopoly and a forced reduction of capacity), the U.S. oil crisis (strong contributors include various Biden interventions, notably the termination of the extension of the Keystone pipeline), artificial inflation (e.g. monetary expansion), artificial lack of willing employees (the state pays people to stay at home), various energy crises (Keystone, embargoes, abolishment of nuclear power, state subventions of dubious “green” technologies, state money to offset (idiots!) rising gas prices, …), etc. (Note that this list is not limited to the U.S. and that, while Biden is often a major factor in this, even internationally, many other leaders of other countries have made similarly poor decisions—albeit rarely even half as many as Biden has.)

    Note that the first example is highly relevant even to the average citizen, which is what the average pupil will grow up to be, with the modification that he is unlikely to vote for someone who would repeat the mistakes. The same might to some degree apply to the second example too, e.g. in that a stock owner might move his investments elsewhere in time.

  3. Similarly, it can be highly beneficial to draw on the ideas of the past, especially as we do have a great problem with ideas disappearing from common consciousness or being gradually misunderstood over time. A splendid example is the early ideas on what the U.S. (qua political entity) should be, how it should be governed, etc., and why this was so. Precious little of the thoughts of, say, Thomas Jefferson still remain in the philosophy of the current political system—and what there is, many ignorants* want to abolish.

    *Note that I do not call them ignorants because they want to abolish something. I do so because they are ignorant of why this-and-that was originally introduced, do not understand the potential downsides, and generally have a simplistic and, well, ignorant view of related matters.

    A personal example is my changed understanding of the jury system. I long considered it idiotic, because it opened up the doors for decisions by those of disputable intelligence, insight into criminal science, knowledge of legal principles, whatnot—never mind the risk that the jury members might prove more vulnerable to emotional manipulation than a judge. Indeed, going by TV,* having the lawyer better at manipulating the jury was more important than having the better evidence. These problems remain, but there was something to the jury system that I was unaware of,** namely that the “jury of one’s peers” was aimed at being a counter-weight to governmental power and a means to give the peers a way to prevent unjust laws and prosecution from infringing on “true” justice.*** (With some similar ideas also applying, e.g. that a single judge might be statistically more likely to be partial or easier to bribe than twelve jurors.)

    *Unfortunately, this appears to be at least partially true in real life too, but not to the extreme degree seen on TV.

    **Maybe, because neither Sweden nor Germany uses juries.

    ***Of course, the main way that a jury can do that, “jury nullification”, is something that the government wants to see banned, and the mention of which towards a U.S. jury already is banned. (Note that I am, myself, in two minds about jury nullification, as it can be a tool for both justice and injustice; however, the point above is not whether it is good or bad, but that I was originally unaware of even the idea.)

    As a special case, historical knowledge can remove the need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, most of the “clever” thoughts and “wisdom” of today have an at least approximate correspondent in the past (often several). Take something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—at least the general idea was covered by the Stoics during classical times. (Also see excursion on the Ship of Theseus for a more personal example.)

    Generally, our ancestors might have trailed us in scientific understanding, but not necessarily in terms of e.g. insight into philosophy, human nature, how to live one’s life, whatnot. The accumulated wisdom of a few hundred or thousand years is almost bound to exceed the snapshot of today’s reinvented wheels.

  4. A better knowledge of past thought leads to a better understanding of various fields and aspects of the world, including how something might have come into being or how something currently weird or silly seeming* might not be so in the light of the past. Good examples are often found around wars and international conflicts, including the Russian–Ukraine situation since 2014 (or whatever years is used as the starting point).

    *Consider the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, without knowledge of the historical context, appears not just weirdly specific but outright weird.

    More generally it can lead to a more nuanced worldview, as every exposure to something different can, and to the insight that the norms of today are not absolutes or necessarily better than those of the past (ditto e.g. methods). (The reverse of the latter is a very common fallacy and one that I, myself, was not immune to in my youth.) Is this is or that change over time actually progress—or is it mere change? Maybe, even, change for the worse? Is A actually better than B, or does it merely have a different set of advantages and disadvantages? Is C actually better than D, or is it merely better for some special interest group, e.g. politicians? Etc.

  5. Chances are that history education will allow at least some “big picture” insights to remain, even if the details fade (and they usually do). For instance (cf. excursion), memorizing the names of animals will bring next to no value, as merely knowing the name allows no insight and as the name will too often be forgotten a few days or years later. In contrast, a pupil who forgets almost everything about the Romans is still likely to remember that they had big empire around the Mediterranean*, centered on Rome* in what is now Italy*, in the past. Someone who manages to forget even that, will still remember that the world was different in the past. (Unfortunately, an insight that some adults in the modern world seem to lack.) A memorizer of animal names might still remember that there are animals, but that insight actually (still…) is present with virtually everyone even without the help of formal education. If in doubt, even a one-year old might have seen a few dogs, pigeons, or flies.

    *Here we see a pleasant potential side-effect of history: there is some, often a considerable, knowledge effect on other areas, notably geography. Chances are that most of the early geography education can be replaced entirely with a side-effect from history education.

Excursion on school vs. education:
The above (and below) is often phrased in terms of “school”, including in the title. This reflects the realistic realities of the foreseeable future, as well as the historical situation for a good chunk of time,* but by no means the ideal. School is and remains disturbingly inefficient and, often, ineffective, and the true focus should by rights be on education—not school. School, at least in its modern incarnation, is not a good way to gain an education and the education is what matters.

*How good depends on the “where”, but often begins at some point in the 19th century on a near-mandatory level and can go back far further on non-mandatory level.

Excursion on more advanced pupils:
There is a minority of pupils who would be under-challenged by the above, and who would benefit from more direct contact with the subject matter at an early/-ier stage. These should be allowed and encouraged to have that direct contact. Indeed, giving the brighter pupils room, means, and encouragement to develop themselves at their own tempo is central to a successful school system. (Whether a successful school system currently exists, I leave unstated.)

Excursion on higher education:
As the level of education increases, the relative importance of “history of X” relative “X” decreases. (Unless, of course, X is a field of history to begin with, in which case “history of X” would amount to history-of-the-historiography and will usually be the far less important subject on all levels.) However, it is likely to be of some importance on all levels and should not be ignored. For instance, a mathematician is likely to benefit from knowledge of what approaches have been taken to a certain sub-field or problem in the past, or how to solve a certain type of problem with less “fancy” methods than the current. Exactly how to address this, I leave unstated, as off-topic, but possibilities include an extensive one-off survey course with a focus on history, the inclusion of a (sub-)module in the individual (regular) course, and just pointing to a certain treatment that the student can choose or not choose to study on his own terms. (The relevance of this material for a test decreases accordingly, from core for the survey course, to minor for the (sub-)module, to none for the “own terms” study.) Noteworthy is that the relevance of history might vary from field to field. For instance, a knowledge of the history of math for a mathematician is likely less valuable than knowledge of the history of economics to an economist.*

*The contents of the respective histories might also be different in character. For instance, the history of math will deal relatively more with what approaches the mathematicians took and what beliefs they held (“history of the field of math”), and the history of economics relatively more with actual developments of an economic nature, say, causes and consequences of the “Great Depression” and what might have happened with a more sensible POTUS than FDR (“history of economic developments” or “history of the economy”). To some degree, but not necessarily for educational purposes, a subdivision into several history fields relating to X might be beneficial, e.g. history of X as a field of study/science, history of thought on X, history of events relating to X, etc.

From a personal point of view, I have occasionally made the experience that I know less about mathematicians and scientists than someone with a weaker knowledge of the respective field. A good (and accessible to others) example is Murray’s “Human Accomplishment”, where I often had a different expectation of who was how important* and often had a “Who the hell is that?” moment when looking at the top-twenty science lists outside of math and physics. This is an interesting side-effect of my having studied primarily math (physics, whatnot), it self, the history of math only secondarily, and biographies of, anecdotes about, human-interest pieces focused on mathematicians hardly at all. (At least, at a somewhat adult age. Some autobiographical works by physicist Feynman are an exception.) The counterpart, on the other hand, might have gobbled down the human-interest pieces without actually touching the math.**

*But, as Murray stresses, the relative importance of some figures might change considerably with a change in methodology.

**In the specific case of Murray, we have to considered a systematic and prolonged busyness with various works of a who-is-who-in-X and history-of-X character for the specific purpose of writing his book. That I trailed even in the scientific lists (let alone Japanese literature) is unexpected.

(Whether this is a problem is debatable. I would certainly prioritize an understanding of the developments of the field of math, it self, over knowledge of who-was-who.)

Excursion on the Ship of Theseus:
In an older text, I dealt with (among other things) the grandfather’s axe (pseudo-)paradox. Finding it too simplistic, I dropped the two-piece axe in favor of a many-piece T-Ford, replaced piece by piece over decades. Some time later, I discovered the Ship of Theseus—a many-piece version of the same idea that preceded my T-Ford by some two millennia.*

*It was used by Plutarch, whose lifespan falls a little short of two millennia ago, but it might not have originated with him. (And any actual ship owned by Theseus, should he have a historical basis, would necessarily have been built long before that, as he was ancient history even to Plutarch.)

Indirectly, this might also point to a danger of school trying to stuff too much into the pupils or doing so too early, as I seemed to “post-remember” having encountered the Ship in school. However, this applies with any choice of topic—and I remain, even after the altered opinion discussed above, with my line that modern school tries to cover too much material and, often, too early.

Excursion on risks:
There are of course some risks and disadvantages with this history-focused scheme, which must be considered during implementation. The most important is that history education can easily be abused to give the pupils a flawed worldview by outright distortions of history, but also by undue focus on certain groups or angles, by agenda pushing, and by application of some pseudo-scientific framework. The infamous “1619 project” is a great example of how not to do it. Anything Feminist, Marxist, Post-Colonial, or Post-Modern is also to be avoided like the plague.*

*Among what is likely to be encountered today. The threats of tomorrow might be something different altogether. The point is to be truthful and scientifically minded—not ideological or agenda pushing.

(However, the same abuse risk is present even in today’s school, as with the aforementioned “1619 project”, and I suspect that a broader and deeper history knowledge would make it harder to keep the truth from at least the somewhat brighter pupils, even when abuse takes place. The more information is present, the likelier it is that an attempted distortion will miss something or be internally inconsistent.)

Another risk is an implicit over-focus on “thoughts of others”, as opposed to own thinking. This is, obviously, a staple of school, but I suspect that it could be worse in a history-centric school. Countermeasures like encouragement of own thought and critical engagement* with claims by e.g. old philosophers are recommended. Ditto a juxtaposition of thinkers who have held opposing ideas.

*By the pupil! Not the teacher or some Leftist destroy-the-past or everything-old-is-wrong fanatic.

Excursion on learning animal names:
The memorization of names of animals, trees, whatnot mentioned above is a good example of school failing. These pairings fell into roughly three categories: (a) Those that I already knew (yes, a kid in school will know what a bear is). (b) Those that I soon forgot again and later learned permanently from a more sensible source in a more sensible manner, e.g. by watching a nature show, where ten minutes were spent showing and discussing the whatnot (vs. the single still image and name presented in school). (c) Those that I soon forgot again and never relearned, because they never had any kind of relevance to me. (In all cases, we have the additional complication that the Swedish names have been less important to my adult life than the German and English.)

What then, apart from busywork or the ability to claim that the pupils were learning something, was the point of this nonsense? Would it not have been infinitely better to just show a few nature shows in class or, in lieu of class, give watching some nature show on TV as home work?

To boot, this mere association of name and image is fairly pointless. A good example is posed by a test where I just could not come up with “järv” (“wolverine”). I knew what the image depicted, I knew what a wolverine was, I had already learned the word outside of school, and had even read a book which featured a wolverine as the protagonist.* (But I had not yet encountered the superhero Wolverine.) I just could not come up with the right word in the heat of the moment. I tried to salvage the situation by giving “carcajou”, which the book had mentioned as a local-to-the-setting-of-the-story name for wolverines in general** (and which might have been the proper name of the protagonist too), but received 0 points. Someone else might well have received points merely for having memorized the right name for the right image and actually having a cooperative memory, without having any further clue about wolverines.

*The school library had a large number of books with animals-as-protagonists, which I had wolverin…, wolfed down.

**Checking for the exact name, which over the decades had faded, I see that this is indeed the case in French Canada. But knowing a French-Canadian term was of no help with a Swedish test. Other names that I learned on my own, over the decades since, include the English “wolverine”, the German “Vielfrass”, and the Latin “gulo” (resp. scientific “gulo gulo”). Today, the “French French” “glouton” was added. Now, how would my progress have been hampered by not having the mere name–image combination included in the curriculum? (Not at all.) What benefit might the other pupils have had, even had they managed to answer the question? (Likely, none.)

Excursion on various shifts:
As mentioned above, there will be shifts as time passes. Their exact nature and many other details are beyond the scope of this text, but a general idea, using the Swedish 4 x 3 years division of låg-/mellan-/högstadiet + gymnasiet,* might be that those on lågstadiet focus on (elementary) national and world history, those on mellanstadiet see this complemented with various histories of various fairly large fields (e.g. history of science), and those on högstadiet complement history with a study of the actual fields and see histories of somewhat smaller fields (e.g. history of physics**). Gymnasiet would then be mostly the fields proper and histories of new fields (exactly what fields go where is another implementation detail, but history of economics seems a good example for gymnasiet).

*Sweden has mandatory education divided into blocks (låg-/mellan-/högstadiet) of three years, for a total of nine years, followed by a voluntary (usually) three-year fourth block, gymnasiet. I have found this parcelling into equally long blocks of three years to be very practical when thinking about school.

**Which is not to say that no history of physics should be given earlier—it should, as part of history of science. However, with the specialization there would be more depth and breadth and more involvement of actual physics. To detail what goes where is beyond the scope of this text, but we might e.g. have mellanstadiet and history of science cover how the world was once viewed as geocentric, but is now known to be heliocentric; while högstadiet and history of physics might contrast Keplerian calculations of elliptical heliocentric planetary movements with older circular heliocentric movements and with the older still geocentric epicyclical calculations. (Not necessarily with much mathematical detail, however.)

Excursion on politics and other fields:
Generally, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of history over the years, and I would certainly see history as the single most important subject for a politician to study (be it during formal education or in private). Looking e.g. at the U.S., what do we typically get instead? A BA in pol-sci, or some other weak field,* followed by a JD.** In fact, I would consider both pol-sci and law studies to be of only secondary benefit to someone who wants to be a good politician. They might help with understanding the machinations of the branches of government and how to write new and understand existing laws, but they are less helpful when it comes to deciding what policies make sense, what laws should be made, etc. No, the clear top-one subject for a politician is history; the equally clear second placer is economics. After these two, we can look at topics like pol-sci,*** law, philosophy (including ethics and various works relating to governance), public administration, business administration, etc.****

*Not that history would be inherently harder. The point is that there are many fields where a brighter student might gain much more than a duller student, but where the dull student might still manage to gain the degree, maybe even with a strong GPA, because the minimum requirements on brightness are low. That someone has a bachelor in e.g. pol-sci simply does not tell us anything much about his intelligence level or how much he gained through his studies. Contrast this with the footnote on STEM fields below.

**Of the common “professional” post-bachelor degrees, I suspect that an MBA would be more beneficial than a JD. Chances are that an “academic” master/doctorate in e.g. history or economics would be far better than either.

***With the reservation that pol-sci often contains pieces of the other fields, which might, depending on point of view, either make it less valuable (due to shallowness of coverage of these fields) or more valuable (due to a width that makes a separate study of some other fields less urgent).

****I do not mention STEM fields here, because they are rarely immediately relevant. However, they can be extremely good filters for intelligence (unlike most of the above) and a good general scientific understanding can be very useful when it comes to specific topics. (And most of my own formal education was in STEM fields.)

This with the reservation that a position in a certain field could require a deeper knowledge of that field, which might change the priorities for the individual concerned. For instance, to become secretary of defense, a prior education and career in the military would be highly recommendable, while considerable knowledge of economics is secondary (but still advantageous), and while the history knowledge might be tilted in the direction of military and conflict history at the cost of, say, the histories of art, agriculture, and architecture. A legal requirement of some minimum level of qualifications might even be an option. Consider, as a negative example, the current Swedish “Försvarsminister”, Peter Hultqvist: As I understand Swedish and English Wikipedia, he has no (!) higher education and was a journalist (!*) before entering politics. The true reason behind his appointment? His career within the Social-Democrat movement, beginning in the 1970s.

*Not only is journalism a pointless qualification for a politician, but journalists are also one of the few groups that might rank lower in my mind than even specifically Leftist politicians.

Excursion on classics studies:
To expand a little on the benefit of classics studies for a Westerner, I would note (a) the additional value in understanding Western culture, gaining a cultural continuity, etc.;* (b) that the wide range of thoughts and interests, often at a level that post-Roman Europe only reached again during the late medieval times or the Renaissance, provide many natural entry points into other fields, including literature, language, art, mathematics, philosophy, and to some degree** natural philosophy/history/science.

*However, I stress that, unlike some other proponents, I do not necessarily see Western culture as a natural or unprecedented number one. (Although, it is legitimately one of the few most interesting.) I am, for instance, well aware of great Chinese and Indian accomplishments at comparable times in history. There is still an increased benefit through the connection over time: In order to understand later thoughts in the Western or European room, and many historical developments, some understanding of e.g. Plato and Aristotle can be quite helpful. (Vice versa, to understand Chinese thought without exposure to Confucius would be a challenge indeed.) The effects of the Romans are still visible in languages and borders, and the West-/East-Rome (and/or the older Rome/Greece) division is at least an indirect contributor to the Western/Eastern European differences of today. Etc.

**The hitch is that the shallowness of knowledge compared to today and the lack of modern scientific methods is troublesome here.

As a special case, Latin is an excellent first foreign language for a native* English speaker.** The drawback of being a dead language is countered by (a) its benefits on understanding English, which has been enormously influenced by Latin (be it directly or indirectly over e.g. French); (b) the great differences in grammar compared to English, which allow a better understanding of languages in general; (c) the great help that it gives if*** a (living) Romance language is attempted at a later stage.

*While English is the obvious choice for most other Westerners, e.g. Swedes.

**Unless special interests need to be considered. Notably, even among dead languages, someone aiming for study of Christian theology is better of with (classical) Greek and Hebrew, while someone aiming for an actual career in the “classics area” might be better of beginning with Greek and only adding Latin at a later stage.

***And the chances are considerable that a further foreign language will indeed be one of these, e.g. Spanish in the U.S. or French in the U.K.

(I am tempted to add a (d) of access to some important works in the original language, but that applies to virtually all languages major enough to be candidates for a first foreign language—and the point of strong reading skills can take frustratingly long to reach. However, this also reduces the disadvantage of learning a dead language—it will take a long time before mastery of a language is sufficiently progressed that a living language brings practical benefits over a dead one. For instance, many or most with only a school-level knowledge of a foreign language will be able neither to converse fluently with a native speaker of, nor to read a book in, that language.)

Excursion on me and history:
As with many school topics, at least pre-gymnasiet (cf. above), I likely learned as much or more history outside of school as I did in school, even back then. This through a mixture of own readings that to some degree dealt with history, what could be gleaned from novels/TV/movies playing in the past*, and various TV documentaries.

*Not necessarily “historical novels” and their screen equivalents, as many were written at or shortly after the time of the events, and had simply reached me at a date when the events had passed out of the “contemporary”. For a trivial and very early example, I very likely first heard of the WWII bombings of London and the evacuation of children to the countryside through the “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, which was written roughly a decade after the events. In contrast, the portions of “The Magician’s Nephew” that play in “our” world would fall in the “historical novel” category. (I note that these “shortly after” books are less likely to contain inadvertent falsification and guesswork than “historical novels”, but also that both should be taken with a grain of salt.)

It was only far later that I began to gain a true appreciation for history, including spending a great many hours reading Wikipedia articles on historical topics in my late 20s. These readings were originally motivated by a general curiosity, but increasingly by the observation that there were more abstract things to be learned, e.g. about success in warfare,* by applying thought to the material—something which was not very clear from the too basic school history. This move from merely knowing facts** to seeing connections, understanding causes and consequences, drawing conclusions, whatnot lead me to a very different view of history than school had instilled. (Just like math and what school calls “math” have little to do with each other.)

*Examples include that a long war tends to be won by the party with the stronger industry (and/or ability to recuperate and keep production up), not the stronger military; that wars and battles are often won by making fewer mistakes than the other party; that better training can outweigh superior numbers; and that the technology or strategy that won the one war might be outdated by the time of the next war.

**Not restricted to who did what in what year, but also including e.g. that the Romans had a large Mediterranean empire.

Since then, I have added a very considerable amount* of historical knowledge and understanding—but still too little. There is so much to learn that I simply have not had the time for, and I truly wish that my early education had given me a better start. To this, bear in mind that I am not a professional historian and that I have a great many other interests/there are a great many other worthy fields, while the day is only so long. History, however, is a field were school might truly bring something—provided that a greater focus is put on understanding, which was not (cf. above) the case during my school years.**

*How much is hard to say, in part due to how spread out it has been, in part due to the different nature of my studies relative (what I would expect from) formal college studies. I would, however, take for granted that I am ahead of the average U.S. fresh-out-of-college history major.

**I deliberately do not go into details of how history should be taught above. This because (a) it would make this text twice as long, (b) would require considerable additional research or speculation on my behalf, (c) the problems with e.g. more facts than understanding and a too elementary level are ubiquitous in school, and reforming this is a separate issue from the shift towards more history.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 31, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Quotes on school and unschooling

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Going through some unread browser tabs, I encountered a page with “unschooling” quotes that I highly recommend. While I do not agree with everything there, much of it overlaps with my own observations and previous claims on school, schooling, education, etc.

This including (items are often overlapping):

The importance to think for one self, e.g in:

3. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

— Alvin Toffler

9. Believe nothing merely because you have been told it . . . or because it is tradition, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conductive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

— Gautama Buddha

That learning stems from the student, not the teacher, and/or that education and schooling are different things, e.g. in:

20. “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

— John Holt

38. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

— Oscar Wilde

42. “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

— Isaac Asimov

73. Schools have not necessarily much to do with education… they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.

— Winston Churchill

The importance of curiosity and/or how school is troublesome through damaging curiosity, e.g in:

6. “Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to the health, so study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Exposing the horrifyingly flawed claim that school is beneficial through socialization or through teaching social skills. Putting children together with other children, rather than adults, and expecting them to learn social skills is absurd:

11. “Nothing bothers me more than when people criticize my criticism of school by telling me that schools are not just places to learn maths and spelling, they are places where children learn a vaguely defined thing called socialization. I know. I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.”

— Seymour Papert

The low practical relevance of school:

8. “There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature.”

— William Upski Wimsatt

(I do not necessarily agree with the exact examples given in this quote, but I do agree with the principle.)

Disclaimer: I have not made any attempt to verify the attribution of these quotes, nor have I read them in the original contexts. I caution both that quotes are often misattributed and that a reading in context can change the implications considerably.

Note on typography, etc.: The original typography might have been changed in detail for technical reasons, but should be true in principle. The inconsistent use of quotation marks is present in the original. The numbers are taken directly from the original page. (In all cases, referring to the state at the time of my opening the page.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 8:54 am

The status of practical learners

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In my earlier days in the Blogosphere, one of my comments* was answered with “So, you are a practical learner!”**. Knowing “practical learner” mostly as euphemism for those with some limited practical talent and a complete lack of intellectual accomplishment, I almost choked with the perceived insult and condescension.

*This was too long ago for me to remember the context and details.

**To paraphrase my main take-away. Here too, I do not remember the details, but the actual answer was likely a bit longer, and probably not intended to be insulting.

Since then, I have revised my opinion on practical learning considerably. For one thing, I have over the years increased my proportion of practical learning, e.g. in that I have so often found claims by others to be faulty that I often prefer to do my own informal experimentation/trial-and-error/whatnot (not just my own thinking). For another, practical learning (in the literal sense, which I will use throughout below) plays in well with my opinions on learning in general:

There are, somewhat over-simplified, two types of learners: Those who just gather knowledge provided by others and those who gain an understanding from the knowledge of others and/or create new knowledge of their own. A practical learner can to some degree be either; however, the weakest aside, the latter will likely dominate. Examples include anyone who observed an event and drew conclusions about how this event could be reproduced or avoided, what the positive and negative effects were, how the event could be utilized, … Consider a stone-age man who accidentally hits a piece of flint so that it can be used as a cutting implement, realizes that it is a potential cutting implement, tries to create new cutting implements by hitting other pieces of flint, and refines his technique based on further experiences—a practical learner who has done something most of his peers did not do and which helps the group to be more successful. Or consider a software developer who tries a certain approach to solve a problem, sees an unforeseen complication when the code is run, and modifies his approach thoughtfully* the next time around. I certainly suspect that many of the great inventors and researchers have drawn considerably on an aptitude for practical learning.

*Not to be confused with the “worst practice” of making random changes in the code until it appears to be running as intended.

Contrast this with someone who just mindlessly absorbs the contents of books, who can apply the algorithm of long division (see excursion), who knows in-what-year for a thousand events, who has absorbed but not understood the deep thoughts of others, … (In turn, not to be confused with the mindful reader. Cf. e.g. [1].)

Of course, the border between the practical learner and, e.g., the theorist can be hard to find—is our stone-age man still acting as a practical learner if he takes a thirty-minute break to just think his options through, during which he does not even touch a piece of flint? This, however, is only natural with an eye on how deeper learning works: Deeper learning, with an understanding of the matter involved, always comes from within, from own thought. External influences, be they practical observations, books read, statements heard by others, …, are food for thought—they are not thought it self. The source of this food matters less than what we do with the food. It is true that some sources provide more, more nourishing, or more easily digested food than others, but ultimately it is up to us to do the digesting.

In all fairness, it is likely true that the set of practical learners will contain a comparatively large sub-set of those not-very-bright (including the stereotypical “shop students”), compared to e.g. those who actually learn from e.g. books. However, there is no true reason to believe that the sub-set of the very bright would be smaller, even if those might engage in practical learning in other areas (e.g. experimental physics instead of auto mechanics)—and worth-while thinkers will almost certainly have several sources of food for their thoughts. Moreover, there are plenty of readers, likely an outright majority, who are not all that bright either—they read but do not truly learn. Similarly, many or most college* graduates have not truly learned—they have internalized some (possibly, a very considerable) amount of facts, methods, whatnots, but have failed to gain an understanding, cannot draw own conclusions, are bad at applying what they have internalized, etc.

*School and, increasingly, higher education have a strong tendency to favor the wrong type of learner. Too often, the mindless absorption is rewarded during tests, while understanding brings little or no additional benefit. In some cases, critical thought can be positively harmful to success, e.g. in fields like gender-studies.

Excursion on long-division:
I have never mastered it: In school it was presented as a set of mechanical steps, with no attempt to explain the “why”, which I imitated a few times to create the impression that I knew them. After that, I just winged the divisions that came up on tests (usually as comparatively easy steps within a longer calculation). In adult life, the divisions that I encounter are either so trivial that I can easily do them in my head (say, 231/11=21), so complicated that I would use a calculator* anyway, or from a context where I only need an approximate** value to begin with. In the unlikely event that I really need an algorithm, I understand division, the decimal system, etc. well enough that I could create it—which is far more valuable than memorizing a set of steps.

*I do not need long-division to solve e.g. 2319523/2344 using pen and paper, but a calculator removes an entirely unnecessary risk of an accidental error and is usually faster—be it compared to long-division or to an improvised calculation. This especially as the very few such calculations that are needed tend to carry a legal relevance, e.g. the extraction, for my tax declaration, of the VAT from an amount paid that includes VAT.

**That 2319523/2344 is a little short of 1000 will be enough in many contexts.

Excursion on men vs. women:
While the problem with a lacking understanding (etc.) is quite bad among men, it appears to be considerably worse among women (and is very often combined with the knee-jerk classification of everyone as intelligent who graduated from college). This could turn out to be a major future problem, if the trend of giving women artificial preference in e.g. hiring/promoting and politics is continued.

For an example, consider the relative likelihood of a homeopathic physician* being a man vs. being woman.

*As opposed to an uneducated user who might be forgiven for not seeing through the obvious quackery that homeopathy is. (But women appear to dominate there too.)

Remark on double posts:
Subscribers might have seen two incomplete postings of the above contents. This was caused by my failing to close the “tags” declaration for WordPress within the HTML code.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 9, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Starting school too soon (Sweden wants reduce the start-of-school age)

with 4 comments

Earlier today, I had a brief talk with two colleagues on the problems of early schooling, including that it is largely a waste of time and that the large developmental differences between individual children makes it highly problematic.

I get home—and find that my native Sweden is about to lower the entry age for mandatory schooling from 7 years to 6… Generally, it is truly depressing how naive politicians, especially in Sweden, try to “solve” problems around schooling, competence levels, skill shortages in the labor force, …, by just throwing on more time, be it an extra early year, an extra later year, more hours per week, or more people directed towards college (irrespective of their suitability). The one hope is that the additional damage in this particular case will be comparatively small—for the simple reason that most Swedish children are already in non-mandatory school at age 6.

Before moving on, I stress that I am a great fan of education (including having earned two master’s degrees)—but that there is a very, very large difference between education and schooling. Understanding this difference is paramount. This post, obviously, deals mostly with schooling.

To now look at some of the issues involved:

  1. Waste of time (as above): The simple truth is that someone 6 (or 7…) years old is not a quick learner. Theoretical learning will be mostly fact based, without any understanding (let alone deeper understanding). The amount retained in memory will be far lower than for an older student, and the time available to forget it again longer (cf. the concept of a learning curve). Practical learning will be equally limited, e.g. in that the ability to write with a pen or pencil is not only dependent on training but also on pre-existing fine-motor skills*, or that it is fairly pointless to learn by rote what the hands of the clock imply when the child’s mind** lacks the ability to understand why and to extrapolate correspondingly.

    *To some degree the fine-motor skills can certainly be improved by e.g. learning hand-writing. However, at this age, the physical maturation is more important. What I took away from the early days of mindlessly repeating letters (which was the Swedish approach at the time), was a hatred of writing—nothing more. My handwriting remained a disaster through-out my entire school years. As an adult, when I had forgotten the hatred and I could draw on the fine-motor skills I had since developed, I easily learned how to write at least passably (when I wanted to…), and I fully assume that I had sufficiently strong motor skills years earlier—with the initial “training” sabotaging my use of them. Similarly, this hatred for writing (extended from the mere motorics to the overall intellectual process) set back other parts of my remaining development: Only as an adult, long after school ended, did I rediscover writing as something positive. (My current belief in the benefits of voluntary writing e.g. for developing my own thoughts and understanding should be manifestly clear.)

    **Not to mention the teacher’s mind… Now, very few teachers, even of first year students, are so dense that they have problems with comprehending the clock—but they do exist. More to the point, very many, even in the majority that does understand the clock, do not understand that understanding is important, that understanding is more valuable than knowledge, than understanding makes remembering that much easier, that someone who understands can take a special case (“when the little hand is on 3…”) and apply it more generally (“when the little hand is on X…”), etc. Notably, this problem is not in anyway limited to the first school years—even in high school I had a few teachers with severe problems in this regard (when dealing with more complex topics than the hands of the clock).

    Comparing the amount of material covered in various years of my own education is tricky, both due to my fallible memory and due to the very different contents and goals at various stages. However, I can say with certainty that I learned more in my last semester of high school than I did during the entire “lågstadiet” (the first three years). What if I had skipped lågstadiet and spent an extra semester in high school? (This suggestion is admittedly a bit simplistic, in that a later start could have slowed down the following stages. The general principle holds true, however, and this danger could have been reduced severely by ensuring that some core skills, notably reading, were still covered in a minimized hour plan covering, say, ten hours a week.) Similarly, why are some younger children allowed to “skip a grade”? Normally, it is not because they have already learned all the material of that grade, but because they are deemed to be sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently strong learners that they are better off in a higher grade. That they would “miss” some material (and that this is considered acceptable) and/or have to make up for it in parallel with their normal studies is a strong sign of how little ground is actually covered.

  2. Developmental differences (as above): Not only do children develop at different rates, including a somewhat consistent boy–girl difference*, but they are also born at different points of the year—and the younger the children, the larger is the relative difference, possibly even absolute difference. In typical systems**, there can be close to a year’s age difference between the oldest and youngest child in a group, to which the development rates must be added. How do we sensibly, effectively, and efficiently teach a class where the one child is on the intellectual level of an eight y.o. and the other of a five y.o.? It might be possible to do—but the one-size-fits-all schooling that is normally attempted will fail.

    *It is possible, however, that this is of little relevance for this specific age group. Overall, it remains a very important issue.

    **Here and elsewhere some problems could conceivably be reduced through alternate approaches (although often with new side-effects). For instance, by grouping children by the half-year they are born in, instead of the year, the above problem would shrink. I will not explicitly discuss such alternate approaches elsewhere, but I encourage the reader to keep the possibilities in mind.

  3. Taking in younger children increases the risk of a harmful uniformization and indoctrination (cf. e.g. parts of [1]. Note that this is not primarily a matter of being in school for a longer period—the main problem is the lower ability to analyze arguments, think critically, etc. I point specifically to the risk of a deliberate abuse: We do not have to worry about just individual teachers with an agenda or a distorted world view. We also have to consider more systematic abuse from above—even in Sweden, I have heard the claim that school should be used to raise good social-democrat citizens… (Consider also the situation in many U.S. colleges.)

    I note that a Swedish source cites the minister of education (Gustav Fridolin, whom I have considered a complete idiot for years…) as saying “Vi vill ge barnen en jämlik start”—“We want to give the children an equal* start”.

    *“Equal” does not catch exactly the right nuisances. “Jämlik[het]” historically started in an “equal rights”/“equal opportunity” sense, but is not very often used in an “equal outcome” sense and/or has strong implications of “social justice”, where the playing field is leveled at all cost, even if it means making the situation worse for one person without improving it for anyone else. Depending on who uses it, other implications are possible, e.g. as with a sport reporter who considered it a sign of increasing jämlikhet that the number of female competitors in a city run had almost caught up with the number of male competitors… Use often goes hand in hand with extreme and out-dated “tabula rasa” opinions of human development. (While I cannot speak for the exact intentions of Fridolin, his previous history points in the direction of these interpretations.)

  4. An extra year of school is not free: teachers cost money, facilities cost money, stationary costs money, school books cost money, … Someone has to foot the bill. In Sweden, this most likely means the tax payers—irrespective of how many, few, or any children they have. This, of course, unless the new expenses are offset with cost-cuts for older children… (With potential effects similar to the next item.)
  5. More schooling almost necessarily implies a lower quality of tuition: The number of people who are suitable* to be teachers is limited. If more schooling is needed, then we have to take in more people not suited, and/or let those suited work longer hours, and/or cut the hours spent per child, and/or yank up class sizes even further.** In all cases an extra year implies choosing quantity over quality, which is entirely the wrong way to go about education.

    *I note that, contrary to what many naive politicians believe, just ensuring that someone has the appropriate degree (as a teacher, engineer, physician, …) does not automatically make him good at the job—people are not fungible! Just increasing the number of graduates with a degree in teaching will not remove the underlying problem.

    **Some relief might be available through directing candidates from other areas into teaching. However, this comes with at least two problems: Firstly, this will not remove the resource problem, just move it from one area to another. Secondly, these people did not go into teaching for a reason, and they might not be willing to reconsider, or they might require more money, or they might make the switch only to later grow dissatisfied, …

  6. The more time is spent in school, the greater the risk that the will to learn, natural curiosity, and the like, are diminished. (Cf. e.g. an earlier footnote.) This is a big enough problem as it is. We should not make the problem larger.
  7. The result of an extra school year is more time spent with age peers and less with adults, yet more time with adults will give the children better examples, better opportunities to learn, etc. More time with other children will, if anything, be harmful. This holds already for fairly average children—when we move on to those who are highly introverted, sensitive, and/or on the autistic spectrum, it holds ten times over. “Hell is other children” to us.

    I note that people favoring more time with other children tend to use the “they learn social skills” argument (as more-or-less their only argument). There is little or no support for this from research, and both common sense and my own experiences clearly indicate that social skills are best learned in interaction with adults or considerably older children—not same-age children.

  8. More early-years schooling is arguably a theft of childhood. Life is long and filled with duties. Let children be children.

    By all means, give them skills, teach them how to read (and encourage reading!), give them every opportunity to learn when they want to learn, … But: Do so in a reasonable manner that does not entail hours a day of being force fed information.

Some of the above points apply generally to increased schooling, others specifically to increased early-years schooling. However, there are also points that would apply to a discussion of the high-school or college years, but not the early years. Consider e.g. that someone in college is not available to the job market. True, once done with college, he might be “a better product”, but it is not a given that this will outweigh the opportunity costs caused by the earlier absence from a societal point of view. This especially, since it is possible that he will be able to improve the skill set relevant for the job better on the job than in school. Also note that one of the greatest benefits with hiring a college graduate in the past was that he had been filtered more strongly (than e.g. a high-school graduate) on criteria like intelligence, work ethic, ability to work independently, … With the current strong trends towards dumbing-down college and ever more people entering and graduating college, this filter effect is more-or-less gone.

I note that there are many other points of criticism towards the school system in e.g. Sweden. The above deals with a specific sub-issue and is not intended as a complete analysis of the problems. Consider e.g. the ineffectiveness of school in that I learned more English from watching TV than I did in the class room, or that I learned things about physics from educational television at age seven that impressed a few class-mates when we were in seventh grade.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2017 at 1:08 am

Cursive writing—follow-up on reading

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Following the comments on [1]e, I have just encountered the whopper of a weak argument:

If children do not learn how to write cursive, they will not learn how to read cursive, and they will be unable to read important documents of old…

  1. Documents worth reading will exist in transcriptions using printed letters. Can there be any doubt that understanding the contents of an important document is more important than being able to read the original version? Indeed, the vast majority of older texts worth reading were originally published in printed letters…

  2. It is possible to read a script that one does not know how to write. Indeed, most of the trouble with learning how to write a particular script is mastering the movements—not learning the shapes. If reading is the main benefit, then reading should be taught.

  3. Most of the documents of old are not written in a cursive that is particularly close to today’s versions—and over the centuries of modern English there have been too many scripts for this to be a valid argument. Further, the same argument applies even to printed documents.

  4. Similarly, language changes through the years make any document sufficient old hard to read, even unreadable, to the untrained. In addition, it should be remembered that there are numerous valuable documents in other languages and that access to these would be blocked anyway.

(See the previous post for context.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Cursive writing

with 3 comments

Recently, I have seen several posts dealing with whether cursive writing and penmanship are important, should be taught in schools, etc. (E.g. [1]e, [2]e.) The comment sections, in particular, have contained a lot of unsound reasoning and preconceived opinions. Below I will look into a number of examples. First, for context and some explanations in advance, my own comments:

Well, when I went to school, I was forced to spend endless hours training my penmanship (with little positive effect, I might add). In contrast, we spent possibly two hours getting a rough introduction to touch typing. Since I left school, by necessity, the vast majority of all my writing is done on a keyboard…

What modern students should be taught is strong touch typing and sufficient handwriting skills (not specifically cursive). If they want to take handwriting further, they can do so on their own time: A key truth to schooling is that there are thousands of topics that would be worthy of inclusion or preservation (in the eyes of at least some), but that time and resources are limited. Schools have a duty to give the students value for their efforts and must make compromises.

Incidentally, those who learn block letters will move more or less automatically to cursive if they do spend a lot of time writing by hand. (I would even consider it plausible that a focus on good block letters is more beneficial for those wanting to write well in cursive than specific “cursive exercises”.) Thus, the extensive teaching of cursive is wasteful even among those who will eventually need it…

‘Please, there is that aspect of caring that is found in a written note. It is like the person is saying, “I know it would be easier to send an email, but I want you to know that I care so much, I wanted to write a letter to you.” ‘

I see it the other way around (on those very rare occasions) when I receive hand-written letters: The author put his or her own convenience (seeing that most people are still weak typists) over mine, leaving me to deal with the problem of interpreting the writing. (Between individual variation and the repeated changes to what is considered “standard” cursive over time, this can be an issue even where good penmanship is concerned.) Further, it leaves me with a text that is likely to be less thought-through and edited than a letter written on a computer. When we go a step further and compare emails to hand-written letters, there is the additional complication that my ability to answer, quote, reference, and re-distribute in an efficient manner is restricted for no good reason.

Correspondingly, to me, a hand-written text of a non-trival size is disrespectful, bordering on rude. (Excluding cases with legitimate reasons, say a sender who does not have access to computers at the moment or who is too old for computer skills to be expected.)


In a bigger context, I note that a number of commenters express the opinion that cursive would be a vital skill, an important part of writing, whatnot—without in anyway substantiating that claim. These I ask to beware that there is nothing magical about cursive writing, but that it just happens to be a convention, something we are used to. This reminds me of the complaint that the children of today would only learn how to read a digital clock and not a “real” clock—yet, there is nothing real about an analog clock that is not real about a digital clock. That someone grow up with analog clocks and only encountered digital ones as an adult may explain a personal preference. This preference, however, is personal and subjective—and none of the two types of clocks is any more or less real than the other.

The loss of cursive writing may be negative, but considering the opportunity cost of spending time and money on cursive writing (cf. my earlier comment) there really is no case: There are thousand of topics, skills, whatnot, that are valuable and beneficial. Not all of them can be mastered in a life-time, let alone in school. Further, cursive writing is certainly not the most important of these.

I would keep the two issues of penmanship and good grammar (spelling, style, whatnot) separate:

The latter is a vital skill and its neglect in modern schooling is a problem—likely, a severe problem.

The former is an entirely independent nice-to-have (although I see how texting and twitter can create the opposite impression). The practical benefits and the need of being able to write well (as opposed to “at all”) with a pen are extremely limited in today’s world. Indeed, I write more words on the computer per day than I do on paper per month. (With reservations for periods when I do a lot of cross-words—but here I write in non-cursive and all-caps to begin with.) Further, what I do write on paper is almost always intended only for my own eyes.

Of course, we could lament the loss of penmanship on an “ars gratia artis” basis, but the same would apply to e.g. the move from fountain pens to ball-point pens, the disappearance of cobblery, or the lack of harpsicord players. There are far too many arts for the active preservation of all as a universal skill—instead the individual must choose which he wishes to pursue.

On to the issues:

  1. A very common theme is the confusion of cursive writing with hand writing or even writing in general:

    The removal of cursive writing does not imply that students are unable to write notes, even letters, and it does certainly not imply that their skills at writing (in terms of e.g. grammar and style) remain undeveloped. On the contrary, these have far better chances when writing on a computer. Notably, the effort and time needed to write a draft is reduced, the draft can be edited (instead of re-written from scratch), re-organisations are far easier, … With computers more time can be spent on the actual text—not just putting down letters on paper.

    Indeed, when I went to school, we were taught an almost mockingly named “writing process”, which consisted of three basic steps: Write the essay on paper. Read through and re-write the essay on paper, making improvements. Read through and re-write the essay on paper, making minor corrections and with a main emphasis on legibility. Honestly, how should a student learn to write with such idiocy? When the vast majority on the time available for the essay had to be spent on merely writing letters on paper, instead of thinking about the contents and the language?

  2. Many commenters simply assert, without giving evidence, that cursive is a vital skill, express their horror at the poor cursive of today’s students, or merely seem to say “I like cursive; ergo, cursive should be taught in schools.”—comments void of convincing power.

  3. Cursive has positive effects on cognitive ability:

    There is no indication that this would be true, except in as far as almost any activity has a positive effect. Now, writing can have a positive effect, but this is not in anyway restricted to cursive writing.

  4. Cursive is good for creativity:

    There is no particular reason to assume this to be the case (and no proof was ever presented). Hand writing may be beneficial over typing in many circumstances (when it comes to the creative process); however, cursive is just a special case of hand writing and not teaching cursive does not imply not teaching hand writing.

  5. Cursive improves fine motor skills:

    This may be, but so do a thousand other things—including normal hand writing. Further, I am not entirely convinced that this argument is valid per se: Coordination develops over time and setting targets for students writing that are too far from their natural level of coordination (as was the case for many students in my own one-size-fits-all schooling) will result in frustration and failure. Certainly, my hand-writing improved as my coordination did—not the other way around. It would then be better to give the students exercises that help them develop their more general motor skills and doing so in a matter that is actually fun—not through the boring and mindless exercises in penmanship.

  6. Cursive is faster than block-letter writing:

    Cursive is what automatically happens over time when a block-letter writer spends a lot of time writing and starts to write faster, which makes this statement both tautological and uninteresting.

    Further, even cursive writing is a lot slower than typing (assuming writers of a comparable training level).

  7. Cursive is needed so that people can sign documents:

    This does not require learning cursive, but just learning the signature. Further, a signature does not have to be cursive. Further yet, the need for handwritten signatures is mostly a legacy issue that will disappear over time. Certainly, for legal documents, digital signatures with private encoding and public decoding keys are far superior.

  8. The issue of a “personal touch” is very common:

    As can be seen from my earlier comments, this is a very one-sided take that ignores that others can see the issue differently: Personal preference is not an indication of an absolute good.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm