Cursive handwriting and other educational anachronisms

I don’t get it. This morning I responded to a poll in the online blog of the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC, the conservative answer to AARP) regarding cursive handwriting. Specifically: “Cursive writing (“handwriting”) has been on the decline for over a decade, though 21 states still mandate it in their curriculums. Should it still be taught?”

I found myself in the distinct minority by voting “No.” An overwhelming majority of respondents think cursive is necessary to read historical documents and foster critical thinking by 50 to 1. I know many of you will agree with that view; you will insist that the curricula of our old school days were more effective in training young minds and that cursive is an essential aspect of that.

But I simply do not agree. And, in a significant way, I have made my living by writing. I have been the author or coauthor of some 270 peer-reviewed scientific publications and 10 books, along with a handful of patents. And since 1983, all were done on some form of computer or another device that is not a pen. Admittedly, my handwriting was the despair of my parents and teachers.

Sure, I have jotted notes by hand. I have a file cabinet of my notes from grad school, and my lab notebooks were all handwritten. In some cases, such as with a potential patentable invention, such notebook entries were punctuated by a witness who had to attest in (hand)writing: “read and understood.”

But the vast majority of my written output had to be electronic, or my publishers would have thrown it back in my face! That’s just the simple reality. This got me thinking about some of the other anachronisms of my schooling, distinct from my education.

Way back when, a scientist who desired an advanced degree from a U.S. university had to demonstrate reading/translational capability in at least two foreign languages, typically chosen from German, French, or Russian. We were told we would need to read the scientific literature in those languages. Indeed, as an undergrad, I took 4 semesters of German as a chemistry major. Although there was nothing special about my German courses, they were often referred to as “Scientific German.” Complete nonsense. I loved my German prof, but his expertise was in Goethe’s Faust; he knew nothing about science.

Image: Teaching cursive by AndrewBuck. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Then, in grad school, I had to pass reading exams in German and, for me, French. For a science student, it seemed a distraction, to say the least. Even by the late 1970s, most scientific literature was in English (and we all knew that the Russians maintained their best work in secret). Take it from me: it is plenty hard enough to earn an advanced STEM degree without concern for niceties that contribute little to the formation of a scientist. And most of the chemistry profs could not even administer the exam themselves; they grabbed a foreign postdoc to do it!

No doubt some readers of American Thinker will maintain that knowledge of a foreign language should still be required for a Ph.D. in science. But once (and only once) in my 40-year research career did I need to translate a scientific publication written in French. While I could easily grasp the data tables and the mathematics, I wanted a detailed understanding of a few paragraphs of prose. Instead of getting out my old Larousse, I posted one flier at the nearby university. By day’s end, I got a call from a young Moroccan fellow who translated the entire article for me. It cost me, literally, a cheeseburger at the student union!

I realized then and there how foolish I was to have fretted over the language requirement in grad school. As it turned out, I really could have benefitted from some greater knowledge of Portuguese since I ultimately lectured in that country.

Soon after I left grad school, the language requirement was watered down to one foreign tongue and the now-extinct programming language, Fortran® (to accommodate the many Asian students who could barely understand their coursework in English). Ultimately it was dropped altogether in just about all universities.

This is not to denigrate the study of language. It is valuable in understanding other cultures and peoples. However, a few semesters of study will barely prepare you to order lunch in Europe or Asia, much less give you the wherewithal to translate a scientific paper that might be critical to your own research. If it is that important, you get it done properly.

Another anachronism that comes to mind is logarithms. In high school, this topic was beaten into me as an absolutely necessary calculational tool. My teachers assured me that I literally could do nothing unless I had mastery over this set of tables!

Of course, one must understand what log and ln mean, for they occur everywhere in mathematics and science. But as for the calculational tool that was pushed in my high school years, complete with table interpolation, forget it. We no longer even include a common log table in handbooks. Software/firmware made it unnecessary four decades ago.

My undergrad university was somewhat unique in that it required research and the completion of a B.S. thesis that was not as extensive as a Ph.D. dissertation, but we still had to take it seriously. For whatever reason, I was interested in the examination of solids via x-rays and latched onto a professor famous in the now-dead field of x-ray crystallography. You see, back in the day, you would determine the “structure” of a solid that way, much the same as Watson and Crick (and, yes, Rosalind Franklin) deduced the double helix. It was a fun project, and I learned a lot. Back then, you could get a Ph.D. by completing a few unique crystal structures over a period of about three years. Now, a computer can do it all in 4 hours!

Should we be teaching x-ray structure determination as a manual pursuit simply because it is good training for the mind? Hell, no! I still have my crystallography books that I sometimes look over with fondness, but for today’s world, it’s not enough to say that there is simply no need. It must be understood that any time spent on these outdated ideas steals time required for mastery of modern metrology.

Throughout engineering and scientific education to this day, anachronistic concepts are given too much attention, with a commonly stated reason being that these concepts “train young minds.” Really, though, it’s often nothing more than job security for bloviating professors. Newly-minted engineering grads are immediately told by their first boss that the plant floor is a different beast from the classroom. In many ways, STEM curricula run the risk of becoming obsolete.

I am sure that if you give it some thought, you can add to my list of topics that, while worthy of mention, no longer require detailed mastery.

Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.

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