Losing Arts?

Two articles from The New York Times came to my attention over the weekend. The first, Poetry:  Who Needs It? arrived via email from my brother-in-law. He knows my love for poetry; he’s also a voracious reader … during those moments when he absolutely must take time out from golf! (I’m honored he includes wiseblooding.com as part of his reading.)KeepCalm

The author (William Logan) of Poetry: Who Needs it? expresses thoughts I advanced in an April post. Logan’s essay states the perceived problem well and seems to hope for a more poetry-friendly (my words) approach in education. His tongue-in-cheek suggestions for elementary-school curriculum (before the age of 12) resembles the movement that advocates for educating children in a free-range setting.

For my part, I remember a time when poetry readings were common … not just the coffee-house, drug-induced ramblings of hippies (though I do remember those). I’m talking about poetic readings as one aspect of a school program or as part of a social gathering. Even in school classes, we were required to memorize certain poems, and subsequently recite them in front of our class members. Children who didn’t have a father like mine (see yesterday’s post relating his recitations) could be certain to have minimal exposure to poetic and dramatic delivery on a semi-regular basis.

Logan’s “blue-sky proposal … making them read poetry” isn’t likely to resolve the public’s general attitude in favor of poetry. However, I’m inclined to believe print publications (where published poetry often appeared) declining over time to continue publishing poetry resulted from negative editorial attitudes toward poetry and the public gradually adopted an identical mindset. (Rhetorical question:  Was this the the first shoe to drop in coarsening our culture?)

Schools have followed suit; whenever education dollars have been reduced or education belts even lightly tightened, dollars devoted to the humanities are usually the first to feel it; oftentimes programs are discontinued entirely. (While this devaluation of humanities predates Common Core, a perusal of the CC standards doesn’t foster my optimism. I’ll address CC concerns in a future post.)

I mentioned a second NYT post I read this weekend. This one, What’s Lost As Handwriting Fades, by Maria Konnikova was posted earlier in the month. The author indicts Common Core for its casual shift from handwriting to the keyboard after first grade. She cites authorities who’ve linked developing one’s handwriting with key developments that take place in the developing brain. This exercise in hand-eye coordination isn’t busy-work but a valuable skill, a separate and critical function apart from a child’s digital ability.

The debate over cursive handwriting includes at least one university’s post, 5 Reasons Cursive Writing Should Be Taught In School. While I agree with their assessment, I found their final two points less than effective. Yes, cursive writing is an art form … an acceptable but unconvincing argument. Yes, cursive writing connects students to the pastnot a compelling argument, not at all. In my view, they’d strengthen their case by sticking with the first three reasons. By itself, the first reason − cursive writing develops motor skills − is the most compelling reason to keep teaching cursive, and the fact it helps children with disabilities is a huge reason in its favor.

ReportCardI learned cursive writing from my fourth-grade teacher. Her name was Ruth Bauer and her handwriting was impeccable. She modeled a beautiful style and I strove to imitate her example. Check out her signature at the bottom of this report card scan (at left).

I share this image because her Conduct comment is amusing. But note, even as perfect as her handwriting was, she still had a write-over correction in the spelling of my name! (She wrote with a fountain pen, so no erasing.) One thing she tried to teach her students was to write slowly and carefully in order to avoid scratch-outs, write-overs and other sloppy errors. I have always remembered her model, though I confess (in this digital age) my handwriting has suffered from lack of use and necessary haste.

There is beauty in both these expressions of the written word:  handwriting itself and the poetic inclination. I acknowledge with William Logan that The way we live now is not poetic. I also echo his observation that The idea that poetry must be popular is simply a mistake. Both points are well-stated and hard to deny.

However, as a devotee of truth, beauty and goodness, I would like to see us live somewhat more poetically and to embrace once more the beauty of cursive handwriting. Speaking for myself, in this world full of utilitarian impulses, small fragments of beauty may be all we’re allowed, but they are requisite for sanity. Let’s not cede them yet.