Thursday, December 06, 2007

Letter Writing

My mother just celebrated her 90th birthday. 120 of her friends attended the reception for her at the First Methodist Church. It was a wonderful event, largely a testament to the fact that she has kept in close touch with family and friends.

My mom is a great letter writer. Letter writing is fast becoming a lost art. I read with great interest in the Times yesterday that the personal papers of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. had been obtained by the New York Public Library. Among the trove was the correspondence between Schlesinger and many of the notables of the last half of 20th century in America. As the piece reported, “About one-third of the 400 boxes of material consist of Mr. Schlesinger’s voluminous correspondence, which in many cases includes both sides of the exchange. Mr. Schlesinger routinely stapled copies of his responses to letters that he had received. “It’s not just who he corresponded with,” a librarian said. “It’s that these were two- or three-page letters exchanged — often about the most pressing topics of the day.””

What will become of the history of this new computer age? Will the New York Public Library receive some computer disks from the estate of the next generation’s premier historian? Will they have archived and kept their correspondence through transitions from 5 and ½ to 3 and ¼ to CD to DVD and on to the next medium?

Mom’s correspondence has all been handwritten. She learned Palmer Method cursive at the Cove School, a small country school outside of Ellensburg, Washington where her family homesteaded in 1876. She practiced at the chalk board and wrote hundreds of sentences as a child. Today, her cursive is every bit as perfect and legible as when she graduated from the 8th grade.

I grew up writing cursive as well. We practiced with our pencils on lined paper beginning in the third grade at a point when our brains and our manual dexterity coalesced to allow the formation of those carefully crafted letters. Practice made perfect. Of course, my practice was aided by the occasional need to write 500 sentences that proclaimed that I would no longer pull the hair of the girl who sat in front of me, or some other indiscretion.

There was something more to the learning of cursive than the simple ability to communicate thoughts in written form. Cursive had a certain flair and elegance and was, when well executed, an art form that communicated not only ideas but something of the personality of the writer as well.

Today, my children don’t learn cursive in school. It has been dropped from the curriculum. I think the loss is a significant one. Not only are children now deprived of an opportunity for tedious, disciplined learning but the fine art of letter writing is undermined as well. Rigor, as an element of the educational process, has been replaced with every increasing opportunity for expression. But, it seems to me, expression finds its fullest form when it springs from a solid base of disciplined learning.

In addition to the loss of cursive, and the death of the fine art of letter writing, the future will miss the opportunity to receive into its archives the reportorial work of the custodians of its history.

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