MY SECONDARY school in the US required all students to take typing classes – even those who had declared their intention to attend university. The boys complied and made half-hearted attempts to type about 35 words a minute. The girls – myself included – objected. In 1967, we belonged to the generation of girls who wanted to break away from the notion that the only step up for us in the workplace was working as secretaries or teachers.
The school didn’t back down.
“You need typing skills,” the principal said.
Typing class turned out to be the most useful course I ever took. We started with the home keys a, s, d, f for the left hand and ;, l, k, j for the right hand, and typed nothing but those keys for two weeks. We then added two letters – g for the left hand and h for the right hand – and practised again for two weeks before moving on.
When we learned all the keys, we had timed typing exercises.The girls’ competitive spirit emerged, and we aimed for 100 words a minute with fewer than three errors. I reached 105 words a minute.
Suddenly, the typing room felt charged with excitement. No one spoke, but the room swelled with the sound of 25 students pounding on clunky manual typewriters. We generated a healthy competitiveness. An invisible bell rang when we reached the end of the margin so we knew when to shove the carriage back to the left to start another line.
Being able to type with all ten fingers and without looking at the keyboard meant we spent far less time typing up our essays. In the future, that skill came in handy for journalism and all my jobs that required e-mails and reports.
Years later, modern technology used games to teach typing. A virtual basketball game looked like a fun way to learn typing, but no one I knew ever benefited from that. The old-fashioned way of learning how to type developed our memories, our spatial awareness and our concentration. We developed superb hand/eye co-ordination.
Most of all, we learned that some necessary skills might not be the most fun to learn. Progressive education has ruined lessons like the ones we learned in typing class by insisting teachers must always be exciting and entertaining.
A teacher should be engaging, but when I taught English and history, I felt my students should learn to tolerate mundane lessons too. I began short grammar lessons by saying, “This isn’t going to be the most exciting thing you will ever have to learn, but you’ll just have to suck it up,” and they did. I provided enough exciting lessons that they were willing to meet me halfway.
My memories of typing class surface every time I read a story on the internet where educators argue that we should stop teaching cursive writing – or even printing – because everything can be typed on the computer. Never mind students don’t know how to type properly. We don’t stress any activities that develop memory like spelling because we have spellcheck on computers.
Students who don’t learn cursive writing show up to medical schools without the fine motor skills that come from holding a pencil. They struggle with stitching up patients because of this.
The education-as-entertainment movement cancelled memorising times tables because we have calculators on computers and phones.
The problem is, we need to build our memories – not just for careers in acting or for delivering speeches, but for our brain’s general well-being. Our brains need exercise – just like the rest of our bodies – to stave off diseases like dementia.
I have no idea how students will survive when they graduate into the real world, where work is not entertainment. Many necessary tasks at work are tedious or boring.
I’m not advocating boring education or rote learning. Students need to be challenged and teachers need to make learning exciting, but education should reflect the real world.
There’s no way I could have ever foreseen how important, rewarding and useful typing class would be in my life. Wouldn’t you know, I had to work as a secretary to put myself through university?
We really need to ensure that progressive education does not mean throwing away all the important skills we learned in the past. Technology is an important tool. I’m glad for the opportunity to use it for things like electronic signatures, but I also appreciate knowing I can write my own name.