Letters Enlighten

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The idiom osiyos machkimos/ letters enlighten appears innumerable times in rabbinic literature. It usually means that the one using the phrase has read the original of an argument, and finds it more enlightening than a paraphrase or synopis. Alternatively, it might be an appeal that the reader should study the fuller original form of an argument.

Somewhere along the way, I had a rebbi who used the phrase quite differently. He would urge us to take notes onthe shiur, claiming that the writing of those letters – not the reading of them – would make us wiser.

Decades later, I have no doubt that he was correct. Forcing oneself to turn mental rumination into visible output helps turn cerebral chaos into organized thought, and fixes that thought in our memories.

This may all go the way of the dodo bird. Schools across the country are mandating keyboarding skills by the fourth grade, but dropping cursive – what we used to call handwriting. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of move away from the increasingly irrelevant skill of writing cursive (which used to be taught because it does not require lifting the pen from the paper as block letters do, and is therefore far more efficient), as well as the backlash in parts of the country.

Someone out there agrees with my high school rebbi:

Typing doesn’t help the brain develop as much as writing in longhand, a tactile means of expression with roots in scratching on cave walls, argues handwriting analyst Michelle Dresbold. With typing, the fingers make repetitive movements rather than connect shapes, she said.

“It’s a very natural process to take a crayon or a rock and make symbols with your hand,” Ms. Dresbold said. “It’s just bringing down things from your brain.” Without that, “children are not thinking as thoroughly.”

In an earlier post, I heaped effusive praise upon Dan Roth for rising to the challenge of producing cutting-edge curricular materials that speak to today’s children, ba’asher heim shom. If kids, including so many of our own, are moving towards different ways of processing information, we have to be able to do more than gripe about it.

At the same time, we need not embrace all change simply because it is fresh and current. As a traditional community, we know the value of retaining wisdom of the past. A German proverb has it that “whoever is married to the spirit of the times is bound to be a widow.” Should our schools, which offer a truncated general studies schedule in the first place, throw out cursive as a fossil? (OK, they don’t recognize fossils; you find a better word!) Or should they recognize that there are often hidden gifts attached to the things we are ready to discard?

Or might it be a better idea to recognize what is in danger of being lost, and insist that students develop personal strategies of note-taking (beyond turning on a recording device), to ensure that letters will continue to enlighten – them and us?

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14 Responses

  1. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    מהרש”א חידושי אגדות מסכת בבא בתרא דף י עמוד ב

    שהיו אומרים אשרי שבא לכאן ותלמודו בידו כו’. יש לפרש כי עיקר הלימוד ושנעשה בו רושם הוא הלימוד הבא מכתיבת יד אשר על כן נקראו החכמים סופרים:

  2. Observer says:

    I do agree that technology for it’s own sake is silly (at best) and some technologies definitely bring more harm than good, especially from an educational point of view. The idea that handwriting is somehow an aid to learning and typing is not, is not borne out by the evidence, however. I grew up pre-computer. I can assure you that there many, many students for whom writing notes was absolutely no help. We used to joke that for some of our friends, classes went “in one ear and out the pen.” I, on the other hand, almost never took notes if I was not “required” to, although doodling was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I consistently did better than most of my note-taking friends on subjects that I paid attention to.

    In fact, there was one (rather embarrassing) incident where I – the only one in a group of 50 students who didn’t take notes – who actually got something correct, because I was the only one who had actually paid attention to what the teacher had said and picked up on a discrepancy. I originally thought that my friend had just made a mistake when she was taking notes, but it turns out that ALL of the students had made the same “mistake”. We were 12-13 year old at the time, so I don’t think anyone understood how such a thing could happen; these were not stupid kids nor were they cowed by the teacher. (I remember at least one argument that that occurred before this incident. But, later I began to have an understanding of what happened. I was the only one who was actually LISTENING to what was being said, trying to understand it, and storing the information in my brain. I didn’t take notes because my handwriting left something to be desired (and the physical mechanics of writing have always been a bit of an effort, and something I need to think about), and generally had a hard time writing notes at the same time as I was listening to a teacher and trying to understand the work. So, I chose not to write notes. Everyone else was so busy writing their notes that they didn’t engage with the material at any level, and then when it came to test time, they simply read back their notes, much as they would have listened to a recording. And, since they were “cramming” – covering material that had been taught over the course of many hours in 3-4 hours, all they did was make sure that they could parrot what they were reading back.

    As for writing vs typing – that’s nonsense. Even some kinesthetic learners don’t do better with handwriting than typing (and in fact some do worse.) And for non-kinestheitc learners, forget about it. Writing simply does nothing for most of them. I’m not saying that hand writing does not work for anyone. I AM saying that the claim that handwriting is inherently better for learning simply doesn’t hold water. Writing is NOT, by any stretch of the imagination a “natural” action. While holding a rock and scratching things with it may be natural, holding a pen (or slim crayon) is NOT – it’s a very learned behavior that requires a lot of fine motor coordination that holding rocks does not. I know plenty of people whose quantity and QUALITY of output increased hugely after being introduced to a computer with word processor.

    My father, OH, was an artist. He was also a sofer (although he didn’t practice the art) and a sometimes calligrapher. He would have been stunned that anyone would seriously suggest that taking a rock and rock and scratching pictures is even close to taking a pen or pencil and forming (somewhat) precisely formed letters, or pictures. He was a big believer in the idea that great art requires skill, craft and discipline. But, he was also the person who turned me on to the idea that sometimes getting certain mechanics (specifically handwriting, in the most important instance I had) is an over all benefit to creativity and learning.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    My father Z”L decided to learn typing in high school (1930’s). Later, in WW2, he needed this skill to write up reports and statistics for his tank battalion on the move through Germany.

  4. AK says:

    Its important to participate in learning, as opposed to just passively listening. Just writing over what a lecturer says may be better than doing nothing, but it still doesn’t force one to think that much. It would be better to have more challenging interactivity, and be given some form of notes for review.

    Learning cursive was always pointless, since its less clear than regular handwriting and few students actually used it. On the other hand, typing is something everyone needs to do constantly, and many people never learn how to do it correctly.

    The question isn’t if one should learn cursive, but if people need to learn any form of handwriting at all. I think for now its still reasonable to learn handwriting, even if typing may be more important.

  5. Whoa nelly says:

    E. Fink,

    Thank you for your incisive comment. It was most enlightened.

  6. DF says:

    I think there’s a difference between men and women when it comes to penmanship. No, I’ve not made a formal study, but I knew the handwriting of all my teachers and all my many fellow students in classes up to college. Invariably the girls had neat cursive (which we called “script”) and the guy’s didnt, exceptions aside. Many of us guys just switched to print or a print/script version once we were permitted to do so. [This was before the keyboard era.]

    Anyway, while I agree there’s something special about writing as opposed to typing, not sure there’s anything particularly special about script as opposed to print.

  7. Thomas Lowinger says:

    But Hebrew has no cursive ?

  8. Raymond says:

    I think I have a kind of middle position on this issue. On the one hand, I think that people today are far too caught up in the latest marvels of technology. I may be the only non-senior citizen left who has no cell phone. When people find this out, they cannot understand how I can live like that. Yet until not all that long ago, just about everybody managed to exist without a cell phone. Perhaps even more strikingly, I have not owned a television for the last 26 years. When people find this out, they are not only surprised, but completely shocked. They cannot understand how anybody can live without television, yet it was also not all that long ago, when most people had no television. Just as a side note, I feel so liberated in my not owning a television.

    On the other hand, while that handwriting expert may be right about tying one’s cognitive abilities to writing things out in handwriting, and while younger students should most definitely master that art, I am personally glad that keyboards exist, as handwriting has become too difficult on my hands. Also, I have to say, that when I type, I think I am thinking quite extensively. One does not have to write in cursive for one’s brain to be activated.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    In grad school, some professors gave us semi-open-book tests where we could bring a personal cheat sheet written on both sides of a standard blank sheet of paper. Choosing what to write, choosing how to organize it, and actually writing it helped us to organize the subject in our own minds and was a great aid to learning. However, this positive effect doesn’t depend on any cursive writing skills; even “all caps” would work just as well.

    I’d also take notes in class, but often engaged in multicolor doodling with felt tip Pentels. One political science professor picked up on this and, for one test, he handed me a question sheet that had only rows of doodles with question marks (he relented after I begged for mercy). It’s not clear if I learned more while doodling or while note-taking.

  10. E. Fink says:

    I don’t think that’s what most frum people think osios machkimos means. I am pretty sure the common understand is that looking at the words in the Sefer Torah magically make you smarter.

  11. Chardal says:

    Two years ago I learned the halachot and art of safrut stam. Not only does it fulfill the mechanism the Rav describes but also forces you to spend a tremendous amount of time pondering each Pasuk as you write it. Perhaps this is a skill we should be teaching high school students who were born into the Information Age?

    [YA – exactly the kind of activity that Zilberstein (and Zilberstein wannabe) schools do regularly, even with younger students. Even if they are haredi :-) ]

  12. Chaim says:

    Cursive writing is not a blessing to all. As a left hander educated in the early fifties I either did not learn the proper way to write or was unable to master it. It was slow painful and sloppy. When I learned to type putting pixel to screen and then to paper made writing and presenting material much easier. The mechanical process stopped being an obstacle.

    In listening to some on line lectures I hear the speaker referencing note taking by students using the computer. Thia process still activates the learner’s filter and requires that learner to systematize what they record.

    On the other hand at the end of my graduate school education what I found was that I could take several lines of notes, go to the cafeteria and reproduce the lectuare while nursing a coffee. This, however, is only the case if the lecture is followed by some kind of break.

  13. Jill Schaeffer says:

    I teach approximately 100 students at a community college and 10 students in a maximum security prison and prefer the “offenders” to the students, because the “offenders” must relate to the professors, the material and each other. They have no recourse to cell phones, I pads or pods to do their thinking for them, their relating for them or organizing papers if not writing those papers for them. They have to read, write and think – all on their own. They have to spell. Murderers and G-d knows what else are busy thinking, because they have no choice. Thinking is the ticket to ride.

    Not so in the community college. In the community college students may be passive, open beaked, waiting for knowledge to drop into their mouths like manna from heaven. Their little grey cells are pure as driven snow. Nothing happens there, nothing is supposed to happen. Their pre-fontal lobes ripple forth a pristine landscape of hills and dales, quiet as the grave. I teach a required course called “Critical Thinking.” One has to teach that thinking is not only a human activity but a necessary effort in order to put one foot in front of the other. So we don’t use cell phones, and we don’t eat in class (Manna dropped from the heavenly vending machine transubstantiates into Lays potato chips with barbecue sauce. Of course you have to pay for that manna, whereas in the wilderness the food was gratis.) All 110 students write their essays in class. They write. They blot and blister the page, and I have to rub my eyes. But they write. It’s a form of engagement with their own minds, their professor and the world, an event of integration and risk. I do mind the hours I spend marking the papers, but not the labor. After all, they did their work, why shouldn’t I do mine? There’s a relationship to be sustained. Yes to cursive.

  14. Rafael Guber says:

    Kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning)is so superior to passive listening and typing. I have been working on projects like this for some time. I have hand written out 100 pages of Rashi Bamidbar in Rashi Script with translations (a mix of my own and others in English and Yiddish.) I have done the same with 400 pages of the Kitzur Shuchan Aruch.

    Even my reading is filled with underlining and notes in the margins. It allows the reader to test their own level of awareness. Passive learning is too much of a dream state to know what has been accomplished.

    Good Ge’zoght Rabbi