The Computer Is Still Not a Typewriter!

The summer before fourth grade, my sister warned me that everything would change in the next school year. I’d have to learn cursive and use it everyday for the rest of my life. Later that school year I was sent down to the school office for a dumb reason. I didn’t hold my pencil correctly. Seriously. I was made an example of in class and told to go down to the office because I had two fingers on my pencil. I didn’t even know where “the office” was; I’d never been there before. I remember going down to the copier room, waiting 20 minutes, and going back to class.

I hate cursive. It may be easier to write, but it sure as hell was never easier to read, at least for me. It didn’t make sense. We learned all the alphabet a few years before and now we’d be forced to modify our idea of what makes an “R”? Why?

We spent tons of time learning cursive by rote, writing and rewriting letters until they were correct. And guess how often I use it today?

Not at all.

Because typing quickly took its place.

The early 90s were a transitionary period in my school. Back then the computer was not a tool to be used in the classroom for educational or productive purposes, but was a machine that played some really fun games like Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail during assigned lunch times and recesses with a partner. There was also one game based in a haunted house that I wish I could remember more of. It was really fun.

While the usefulness and potential of the idea of a computer in every classroom was probably alive in the school, it didn’t extend to the younger classes. We didn’t learn keyboarding until 8th grade. My handwriting was terrible, but it was always terrible—still is today. They caught us right in time for writing papers and book reports, and in a few short years we would apply those skills to email, instant messages, and crappily designed Myspace pages.

Problem is, my class was taught how to type on a typewriter–not a computer. We learned that there were two spaces after a period. We learned that it took five spaces to tab. We learned that headings and titles should be in all caps and centered on a page. If we learned any features in Word or other similar software we didn’t learn to use them. We learned to overuse them.

We didn’t learn how to type special characters, which made typing foreign language assignments a ridiculous task of writing what we want, printing, and then going back to handwrite characters like “ç” and “´” to the text. We learned that an ellipsis was three (or more, which is what’s commonly used) full stops, not just one character. We learned nothing of kerning, leading, serif and sans serif fonts. It was apparent that the faculty at the time knew nothing about typography either, and it probably came back to haunt us a few times in college when we wrote papers about most any European philosopher.

And although this was about 10 years ago (aka, a long time ago), in a nerdy way it pisses me off. We can make ourselves aware of what’s wrong with our typing, but it’s also a matter of breaking habits that are planted deeply into our brains. We spent so much time as kids learning cursive, getting scolded for the way we held pencils, and nobody thought to cover these issues. I have no idea if they teach these today, although I’ve seen classroom permission slips from teachers sent home with the same problems.

How could they not have anticipated that this would be the way we’d communicate in the future?

It’s why I’m glad I discovered The Mac Is Not A Typewriter. It’s a short book that teaches you to unlearn all the crap that your teachers taught you about typography, topic by topic.

The only bad thing about taking the time and effort to learn the right way to type is that most people are ignorant, or simply don’t care. They learned the same bad habits you did, if they learned at all. It kills me to watch someone slam the enter key twenty times when they want to go to a new page or insert spaces to try to get text to align.

They learned to type, but not on a computer. It’s a statement of how little we learn about software. I read somewhere that the new version of Office isn’t adding many new features, just making them more accessible. Users kept requesting features that were already implemented, but hard to find. Part of it is because Office got too big and bloated. The other part is that nobody really teaches, or wants to learn, the right way to use Office because they believe what they do is good enough.

Maybe typography would completely go over the heads of students just learning how to prepare bibliographies. But as handwriting gets replaced by keyboarding doesn’t it make sense to spend time getting these fundamentals correct?

2 thoughts on “The Computer Is Still Not a Typewriter!”

  1. Interesting post here! Having lived for many years in Japan, where students spend inordinate amounts of time on writing practice, I’ve often wondered why they don’t just put computers in the classrooms and be done with it. After all, it’s much easier and quicker to type Japanese than it is to write it! But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon… It seems like such a waste of a good chunk of the school day though!

  2. It’s not so much that handwriting will be completely replaced by typing, it’s that we use typing more in our communication methods than ever before. Because of that we should put more thought into what makes quality typography–not just throw text on a page with no conventions.

    I’m not saying that we should completely do away with handwriting, since it is necessary, and it is an artform. It’s a shame that most people don’t know these conventions, but I think it would be even worse if we needed to have a computer everytime we wanted to write something down.

Comments are closed.