Irredeemable 2-spacers (aka teaching outmoded skills)

A little while back, our office had a rather lively email debate about how many spaces should be typed after a period—no, I’m not joking, this actually happened. Anyway, about half of those chiming in claimed it should be a single space and the other half insisted on two.

It must have been a slow day, because I delved deeper into the issue (which apparently goes far beyond our office), and found an interesting post from Farhad Manjoo. It turns out that our “irredeemable two spacers”—who are completely and utterly wrong—came about thanks to technology. Typewriters used a monospace font, meaning that wide and narrow characters were all given the same space. So sometimes it was difficult to immediately spot the end of a sentence. Adding the second space enhanced readability. Even though computers use proportional fonts, we continue to type two spaces because many teachers still teach that rule; it’s how they learned to type. (I’m retraining myself, but spellchecker still occasionally finds double spaces).

Manjoo argues that, “we would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that’s what was popular back when they were in school”.

That struck a chord, because my daughter’s school, much like others, is in the midst of the cursive writing debate. Should cursive writing continue to be taught? I’m a proponent of keeping it (for some of the reasons discussed here), but advocates of dropping it argue that nearly all written communication is now composed on a keyboard, that print suffices when a handwritten communique is needed, and that printed signatures are legal. They argue that teaching an outmoded style of writing takes time away from other topics that are of more value.

There’s that word again. Outmoded.

Between these two, I began to wonder: at what point do we, as a society, decide that a skill has become outmoded? Some of these seem obvious—learning to churn butter or joust is outmoded unless you intend to make your living at a renaissance faire. On the opposite side, I doubt anyone—except students—would argue against teaching basic math despite the ubiquity of calculators or against teaching medical personnel how to take a manual blood pressure reading even though technology can now do it faster or more accurately.

So where do we draw that line? At what point do we say that due to technology this skill is no longer needed? At what point do we deem a skill so critical that despite advances in technology this skill must be taught?

As voice transcription capabilities advance, will there come a time when both handwriting and typing are deemed to be outmoded?

Carolynn Johnson

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