John Adams and Penwork

In David McCullough’s book John Adams, I learned that the future president constantly urged his son John Quincy Adams to practice his penwork for at least two hours a day.  While I don’t have the book any more, my memory recalls that he said journal entries should be part of it, and the rest should be letters and articles, and maybe a book.  The whole point was to practice legibility (a quill pen was not easy to write with), and to get your writing known and seriously quoted.

While still under eighteen, young John joined the first American delegation to Russia, largely because his skill with a pen was so excellent and his effective writing skills were so well known.

Will Richardson, in today’s blog on Digital Inclusion (at Weblogg-ed). quotes Ira Socol’s response to Dean Shareski’s reflection on NECC 2009 (how’s that for a chain of connection??).  To be clear, these are Ira Socol’s words:

So, it is not a question of whether these technologies add value somehow to education; but the reverse, can education add value to the communications and information technologies of our present day world, and its future?

And there’s the chiseled goose-quill point of it, right there.

Of course education adds to the communication and information technologies of our present-day world.  We know — know with 100% certainty — that the more people who read and review an idea, the more likely it is to be accepted and acted on, and be useful to someone.  Our current walled garden approach to teaching is that a student will produce nothing of lasting value between the ages of 12 and 20.

It just ain’t so.

There’s a nominal line between the agora or marketplace, and the academy which we as a culture need to address.  The notion is that school is a walled garden, and that content produced in that walled garden is not for sale: the minds of the children in it are not for sale; nor are the minds of the adults; nor is the curriculum; nor are the walls suitable for advertisements; nor are school video screens appropriate real estate for ads either.

Yet I think we shut out the agora at our peril.  Numerous private schools have been hammered and hampered by the sudden drop in the value of their endowments; public schools face massive cutbacks.  And child-labor laws actually hinder students in poor areas from reaching for education as a tool to to leverage their future potential.

In the Anne McCaffrey sci-fi book about life on Pern titled DragonSinger, one of the music-school-going characters makes a comment about how he would like to sell some pan-pipes he’s made; only the master instrument-maker hasn’t yet put his mark on them, to show that the item is made by a genuine apprentice instrument-maker.  They’ll sell for more, Piemur asserts, with the right mark on them — the right branding — than without, and he wants as much as he can get for them.  But the master — who takes pride in his craft — won’t stamp them unless they are made well.  Then he negotiates the best price for those items in the marketplace, revealing his origins in a trading family.

Piemur from the McCaffrey novels, and Quincy Adams from American history, are not alone in wanting to present their work to the world and to the market.  Maybe their work isn’t very good; Piemur’s best efforts only fetch four marks, which we’re given to understand is enough for some dessert treats and a bauble from a costume jewelry shop.  All kinds of leverage is possible, though: Adams’ penwork earns him a trip halfway around the world — an adventure!

I think teaching students (and teachers) about the immediate marketability of some skills, and attaching monetary reward for them, would instantly boost interest in creativity and collaboration.  It would also give business some incentive to invest in local educational efforts: this kid can write and interviews people well; let’s send him to the state capitol to report on the news for a few days, or a week.

Ira Socol’s question reminds us that Pythagoras and his followers were hounded city to city, and eventually tortured to death, because the Pythagorean theorem and the secret of pi (π) had military applications; it wasn’t just weird math.  The Romans sought out Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse, Sicily, for his mathematics as much as for his military engineering.  Leonardo daVinci got a job as a painter’s apprentice because he scribbled pictures on every writing surface he found.

All the folks saying, “we have to teach the eternal skills, for the whole of their lifetimes” are blowing smoke and selling snake oil.  It’s worth remembering that our ideas about eternal skills are always complicated by the realities of techne.  Early Sumerian tablets record that a student learning write might be beaten twenty times a day — for cutting his stylus wrong, for improperly shaping tablets, for misspelling a word — until he invited his teacher home to dine with his parents; and then the mysteries of the scribal art would open with ease.   Two hundred years ago, John Adams insisted that his son practice with a quill pen for two hours a day, so that his penmanship would be good enough to do the work of an elected official or diplomat. For both groups, the most important skill of the day: write well with the best instrument available, and to as many people as possible.

Yet I don’t hear anyone suggesting that we ask our students to write emails and blog for two hours a day.  Quite the contrary, I hear the reverse.

Let’s say it loud and proud: Students, write e-mails and blog, use your cellphone to snap and share photos,  comment on other people’s blogs, and Twitter for two hours every day.  Put your ideas out there for as many people as you know to read and comment on.  Be energetic in generating ideas and seek active commentary.  Show the best face you can to the world.

Who knows?  It might get you an official berth on a visit to Russia. and what could be cooler than that?

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