The good news is that Arkansas' legislature is taking education seriously this session. Two good bills have already passed the General Assembly and been signed into law by our education-minded governor. One would require that every high school in the state offer a computer-science course, a minimal requirement for equipping the state's students to compete in a 21st century economy. The other would emphasize a 19th century skill that needs reviving in our time: cursive handwriting.
Good penmanship used to be the mark of the well-educated. For reasons that once were obvious. Cursive develops hand-eye coordination in kids (just ask any Montessori teacher), teaches them the importance of each letter and sound, enhances their pride and self-respect, and allows them to communicate with style and grace and respect for others. It is, in short, an art -- one that enhances their life each time they pen a note.
My immigrant mother may not have been sure about the spelling of words in this new (to her) and anything but phonetic language. But she insisted that her little boy have a legible hand. It was the sign of the educated, and I still remember how she would refer to someone of refinement with a mixture of admiration and envy: "He's an educated man," or "She's an educated woman." With the emphasis on educated.
She was raised on the battlefield that was Poland in the First World War, "a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night." She herself had never made it to school, either in the old country or in this New World -- but she wanted her youngest son to acquire the rudiments of the education she never had access to. And good handwriting, along with good manners, was one thing she demanded of her children.
I'm afraid, indeed I'm sure, that I disappointed her in that respect. Despite those hours of practice she put me through at home -- even sending notes to my teachers telling them to keep me after school till I could write a better hand. But I still kept slanting my letters the wrong way, and to this day have trouble making my little r's and v's distinguishable from each other -- all of which must puzzle and annoy the other editorial writers and copy editors here at the newspaper. For they're the ones who have to make sense of my chicken-scratching.
Even now I can't decipher my own handwriting the next morning after scribbling out the draft of a column or editorial the night before. There's no telling how many Great Thoughts of mine I've lost that way.
Cursive writing is an art and tradition -- a link to our past that should be preserved. And honored. I once met a young lady of Japanese descent on the Canadian Pacific who was making her annual trip and pilgrimage from Toronto to Vancouver to see her old teacher, and knew he would examine her Japanese handwriting in detail -- it's more like painting -- and suggest exercises she could do to improve her calligraphy. It was a way to preserve her heritage, and pass it on to her children in turn. It was an exercise not just in handwriting but in character and continuity.
There's another discipline and art that our public schools should include in their curriculum, as befits an education in these Southern latitudes: good manners.
There are some who would dismiss manners as only a frill, an expendable adornment as opposed to an essential like computer science in these electronic times. But there are some frills, like art and music and, yes, good manners that are anything but frills. They're essential if we are to have a decent and democratic society. They unite us all regardless of class, race, creed or color by giving us a common, mutually respectful way of dealing with one other.
The manners of a society are its signature, its glue, the medium in which it thrives or withers. To the thoughtless, manners are only superficial, but to the thoughtful, they reveal the essence of a society -- and hold it together.
Manners are tolerance codified. In a society and culture as diverse as this one, they make it possible for quite different people to preserve our individual differences while respecting others' ways, and live together in mutual consideration. That's no small thing in a country with a people as various, free and just plain rambunctious as this one.
Good manners should certainly be practiced and taught in every grade, but whether a course in manners should be prescribed by state statute is another question. Better to make manners part of the culture rather than the legal code. To impose manners by force of law might come too close to being, well, impolite.