Tag Archives: Education

Lewis H. Lapham (1935- ), former editor of the American monthly Harper’s Magazine from 1976 until 1981, and from 1983 until 2006.  He is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, a quarterly publication about history and literature, and has written numerous books on politics and current affairs. 

“As many as six out of ten American adults have never read a book of any kind…”

Some things about education (1989):

“Schools serve the wishes and expectations of the society to which they belong.”

In the spirit of re-arranging the American system of education, “citing the authority of Thomas Jefferson…I can imagine Jefferson’s purpose translated…that would train…students…  [with] curricula…directed toward two fairly modest tasks: the teaching of languages, history, and mathematics; and the instilling of intellectual confidence.”

“The study of languages and mathematics provides the student with the tools to work at the trade of learning.”

“A student reads the classical texts because they induce the habit of thought.”

”A thorough knowledge of a few writers instills in the student the confidence that he cannot derive from selected passages printed, usually in bad translation,  in an anthology chosen by a committee of pedants.”

“All students should learn the rudiments of writing, reading, history, and arithmetic…ceaseless reading (literature)…writing (letters, explanations, narratives)…calculations (bills, rates, balances)…ceaseless study of historical chronologies.”

“Jefferson assumed that roughly 90 percent of the population was ineducable: he meant that most people were not suited to the atmospheres of the higher learning.  Certainly everybody has a right to go somewhere, but not necessarily to academia.”

“Too often it is thought that an education can be acquired in the way that one acquires a suntan or an Armani suit, as if it were an object instead of a turn of mind.”

“An education begins with two or three teachers and six or seven texts (maybe books, maybe equations or fossils or trees) that introduce the student to the uniqueness of his or her own mind.  After that it’s a matter of educating oneself.”

“The best American minds, or at least the most generous and imaginative of American minds (I think of Lincoln and Melville and Edison), tended to be self-taught.  Expressing a sentiment that Jefferson probably would have seconded, St. Augustine observed that it is possible to learn only what one already knows.”

LHLaphamLewis Lapham







from Art and Reality by Joyce Cary (1958; 1961)

What happens in reading?

The reader is receptive only in a special sense. What a reader has in front of him is simply a collection of marks on paper, inert and meaningless in themselves. They are incapable on their own account of giving him anything. Reading is a creative art…. The meaning received is created by the imagination from the symbols, and that imagination must first be educated . . . in the use and meaning of a symbolic system….

Without education, it is not possible for a man even to appreciate any art. For education does not give only knowledge but taste; it qualifies the feelings as well as the judgment. It creates the sensibility, which is a compound of feeling and judgment.

We judge the value of the work finally by its revelation of a moral real. The power and quality of the artist’s craft is in the force and authority of his revelation. His subconscious is creating or reconstructing from the symbols before him the whole emotional content of the work; his reflective judgment is all the time recording flaws of expression, failures of emphasis, loose joints and weak transitions . . . some part . . . ready to notice an error of fact, even when the error does not destroy the continuity of the emotional experience.

The mind, in short, by education, has acquired a complex formal character which has all the spontaneity of primitive emotional make-up. The feelings are charged with ideas and the ideas with feeling, and reflection can proceed without conscious thought.


By: James F. O’Neil

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”  —Francis Bacon

Instead of math genes, I received an inordinate number of right-handed-ness-es: dexterities.  I received the keen sense of making precise o’s and p’s and q’s in 3rd grade cursive handwriting.  (I have no memory of writing skills in 1st and 2nd grades.)

In the upper right-hand corner of our wooden desktops was a hole that held a small glass bottle filled with ink.  (The small bottle was called an “inkwell.”  I don’t know what the small hole was called, other than “the small hole to put the inkwell in.”)

school desks


A handwriting teacher would appear once or twice a week.  She would stand before us, giving directions for a lesson.  As we began, she would walk down the aisle.  A ruler would hit a desk, then another, then closer.  I would sit properly, having my paper ready at the correct angle to my body, with my left hand across the top of the paper.  I was learning The Ruler Method.

wooden rulers


So I would pick up my ink pen, with pen point.  I proceeded to dip into the well of learning, then to scratch out my name.  Cursive.  Practice and practice upon the vanilla-colored paper with its graduated red and blue lines.  Dip, scratch.  Dip, scratch.

lined paper


[Note the paper facing LEFT]

Making motions with the pen, I copied from the board the letters the teacher had chalked on the lines painted onto the black slate.  Cursive letters, upper case and lower case.

Week after week, month after month after month, I perfected the letters of my name, scripting the J and O and N.  (I also fell in love with the Z, how it dropped down below the base line, taking up three lines, unlike the lowly e and others who got merely a half space.)



We children-students all wrote alike by the end of 3rd grade–except for the “lefties” who were dragging ink across their pages, ending up with ink on their left-writing hands, but still using ink from the right-side inkwell.  No discrimination then: all sat up the same way, the paper at the same angle on the desktop, facing to the left.  Otherwise…The Ruler.

By 8th grade, after six brutal Ruler-Years, I had been made in the image and likeness of one of Mr. Palmer’s Chosen Disciples.  I was tested, weighed, and found not wanting.  I was a Palmer-ist.  (“There is no value in any penmanship drill ever invented unless it is practiced with correct positions of body, arms, fingers, penholders, paper, and with exactly the right movement, and at exactly the right rate of speed.”  —

Then whatever happened to Palmer cursive? 

I learned of Zaner-Bloser as my own kids were learning cursive.  No more Palmer Method.  Then arrived a simplified handwriting, manuscript to cursive, with a mere tilt of the letter-making pen: D’Nealian, controversial, but well taught.  Taught early and easily by…no handwriting specialists anymore.  Not needed.  Gone, like the dodo bird.  Ancient.  Mysteriously vanished.  And today few care.   

“You write like a girl!” is not often heard anymore, as I sign my name.  More likely, “What nice handwriting you have.” 

I do all right now when I have a good gel pen or a fiber point. 

I had some good fountain pens, with “bladders,” and the cartridge types: Parker, Waterman, and, of course, Sheaffer. Then I experienced the quiet that came with the invention of the gliding roller-ball (with its bloppy ink), yet still have good Cross pens, which are too slow now, and require too much motor effort for arthritic fingers.  

Yet nothing has been able to match the grace and speed and style of my Palmerism as a gel-ink pen is able to do.  No refilling,  no “perfect” gold nib needed.

The gel pens scratch beautifully, making noise as I press out the thoughts-onto-paper, carefully or sloppily.  I even enjoy hearing cross outs and corrections.    

As I write, sometimes I am back in the 3rd grade (still aware of The Ruler).  I write and write, sitting as I was taught: left hand holding down my paper, right index finger near the tip of the pen, small/little finger resting on the desk supporting my hand–with the reddened indentation on the middle finger, holding the weight of my words.  This is pleasurable writing, personal writing. 

I am a happy writer.

Looking back, I am so glad I was taught by those demanding much.

And The Ruler Method?  An un-truth….  However, it makes good stories.  The ruler-in-the-hand was nothing more than a symbolic mace, held and carried (and threatening) as a sign of order and authority.  I never had my knuckles rapped in writing class.  The Protectors of the Ruler [Method] knew better: They did not want damaged disciples who might have been too swollen to copy notes or write spelling exercises.

“Blessed are those….”  I am blessed with good penmanship.  I was a good Disciple–and one who had a great Fear of the Ruler.  I learned well.  I can print, write, copy, and sign (especially my name, which I am so proud of and so want to be legible.)  The sound of my pen scratching out letters across a blue line pleasurably reminds me of the days of “hard” that turned into “easy”–and to handwriting success.

Cursive rules!

© James F. O’Neil  2013

Note:  As I write this, some states do not require public schools to teach cursive reading or writing.

Most adults–and college students–abandon cursive writing for a hybrid of mostly print letters joined occasionally in a cursive style.  (In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, the publisher of cursive textbooks.  Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed.  The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print writing, others resembling cursive.) 

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