Erasing One of the Rs?
Reading, writing and arithmetic—the three Rs—formed the basis of much elementary education in the United States for the past two centuries. Now the middle R is under fire. No more Palmer method of penmanship, a favorite in Catholic grammar schools for generations. Instead of learning the curves and loops of cursive writing, students, some as early as the first grade, find a letter on a keyboard and punch it. Keyboard lessons replace handwriting lessons. If they must write, youngsters today prefer to text or e-mail a short note rather than try to create one in cursive handwriting. In this age of communication by computer and cellphone, text messaging and Facebook, there is little need for good penmanship except occasionally to sign your name. Even that often becomes an illegible scrawl rather than readable script.
The fading away of handwriting raises several implications. First, future generations will no longer be able to read John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence or the document itself. It will be like a medieval manuscript or the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, needing to be deciphered and translated by experts. Second, we will no longer be able to read the handwritten letters and recollections of our grandparents, often lovingly written with beautiful penmanship. A specialist will be needed to decipher such handwritten notes.
Indeed, cursive writing, the second R, may be a dying art, replaced by K—keyboarding—an ambiguous development. Yet maybe in the long run, future generations will look back and see that era of elegant penmanship as only a brief and passing chapter in the long history of human communication.
A Real Miracle
A new movie that opened last month in art-house theaters (but will one day be available to all on Netflix) focuses on something that remains mysterious for many moderns: miracles. “Lourdes” stars Sylvie Testud as Christine, a more-or-less believing pilgrim suffering from multiple sclerosis. Christine has come to the French shrine for healing as a guest of the Order of Malta. She admits, though, that she goes on pilgrimages mainly to travel. It is difficult to travel with MS otherwise. The film nicely depicts the reality of pilgrimage: the crowds of people squeezing into an underground church, knights and dames of Malta pushing the malades in their carts; the functional hotels where everything seems to be tiled, as in a hospital; and the overcast weather punctuated by flashes of sunlight.
“Lourdes” shows, with surprising respect and intelligence, the mix of approaches to the miraculous, even among believers. Midway through the film, Christine experiences a miraculous recovery, beautifully filmed. Or does she? One doctor is not sure; the other is. An amusing duo of women argues about what counts as a “real” miracle. Later, the same two pilgrims sit in a Lourdes hotel, and over dinner one wonders about God’s failing to heal everyone. “If God is not in charge,” she asks, “who is?” Her companion considers the question and then says, “I hope they have a good dessert here.” Though many modern men and women doubt it, miracles can still happen. Sometimes they even happen onscreen.
Divide and Conquer
After months of gut-wrenching work on health care reform, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, may have learned a strategic lesson: to break up a complex, comprehensive bill into smaller legislative parts. His first such effort, a modest $15 billion jobs bill that gives employers incentives to hire the unemployed and keep them on payroll for at least a year, was a surprising success. It passed by a vote of 70 to 28, with the support of 13 Republicans—an unusual display of bipartisanship.
The small-bill approach entails risks: Some provisions might be impossible to pass, and the efficiency of multiple parts designed to work together could be lost. Yet the approach has two significant advantages: simplicity and accountability. A no vote on any straightforward proposal begs to be explained to constituents. And a small bill allows senators to cross party lines if a particular proposal serves their constituents; on a large bill, by contrast, the same senators might vote no because of a single provision.
Senator Reid’s next bill illustrates the plusses. A proposal to extend by 30 days the unemployment benefits and Cobra health coverage of millions of U.S. workers was stalled for a week by one senator, Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky. After Bunning’s obstructionism made the news, the Senate defeated an amendment Bunning wanted and voted for the extension 78 to 19.
In future bills, Reid plans to offer incentives to small businesses that need workers and to the tourism and clean-energy industries, and to promote jobs in public works infrastructure and for youth. If the small-bill approach works and the public sees more being accomplished in Washington, the gains could be disproportionately large. A string of small successes might be better than landing a big one.