Pencils: Back to School - Cardinal Newman Society

Pencils: Back to School

In a world saturated with electronic sounds and images, is it really a big surprise that learning struggles are on the rise? Granted, there are genuine physiological maladies which result in learning disabilities, but there are multitudes of children (and adults) who suffer learning issues which are not related to diagnosable disabilities. Even many good and bright children struggle in areas where they should shine more naturally. The force of technology is so strong that it is hard to find popular adherence to wisdom which counters the technological tidal wave in life and education. And yet, at a recent address at Catholic University of America, tech entrepreneur Michael Ortner made a compelling case for an education rooted in the classics, logic and Latin as a prime and superior preparation for careers in the tech field. There is also an increasing number of articles echoing what one now-famous New York Times article unveiled: the technological “royalty” (i.e., the Silicon Valley clique) are choosing an anti-technology education for their own children.[1]

While such articles sit well with those of us who promote education rooted in human nature and Christian anthropology, as a headmaster I still have to face the problem of practical solutions to our cultural nemesis – runaway technology. As teachers and parents immersed in a digital world, regardless of our personal efforts, we still see the effects of tech-saturation on our children. With large screen televisions in our restaurants, clothing stores and at the checkout counter, and the ever-present new styles of computers, iTouch, smart phones and iPads, do we even have a fighting chance anymore? Do we have a chance of facing the many challenges we find in the classroom, such as, most poignantly, sustained attention and real hands-on experience with something as simple as holding a pencil or crayon?

I maintain we do have a fighting chance, but it will take time and determination – and sound principles. As parents and teachers, we need to wrest control back from the main stream of culture and create a different environment in our homes and Catholic school classrooms.

Like the Waldorf school in the article referenced above, we must be purposeful and committed to educational ideals and practices that help children grow in their human nature in a simple, natural and beautiful way: “While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.”[2] Emory Professor, Mark Bauerlein, in an article published earlier this year, challenges everyone to go back to real handwriting. He contends that it will improve many things, especially the quality of writing and thinking: The pen moves more slowly, but that isn’t a drawback. Like other “slow” movements (slow food, slow reading, slow art), slow writing aims for a fuller and tighter relation to the object, a nearness of mind to the language it utters. The plodding process of “drawing” letters instead of tapping keys and telling a computer to draw them gives words greater intimacy and presence. The hand­written word is closer, and that makes a writer more deliberate with words.”[3] I would go as far as to say that the attention given to picking up a pencil and handwriting, as well as sketching, will slow down a child’s mind to a human pace and, simultaneously, increase their powers of observation and perception. This will give the student back their human control, re-establishing them as masters of themselves rather than soft slaves to the “search” button.

Parents, too, must create a sound counter-culture. One important way of doing so is reading aloud to our children. In this simple act we build imagination, relationship and a base of common knowledge – provided we read wonderful, classic books of stories and poetry. One of our local priests who does extensive counseling with families is a product of Boston Latin School, Harvard and the US Marine Corps. He knows something about building and maintaining a culture! He often reminds us parents that we are in charge of our homes; it is our duty and our responsibility to build the culture of our own home. We cannot do much about Macy’s video screens or “control” over what happens to the car radio when our teen has our car out on an errand. But, in our home and even in our car, when we are there, we can and must insist on providing the culture we have determined is right for our children if they are to live a well-balanced life, a life ultimately ordered to virtue so they will be free from slavery to the undulations of pop culture.

If schools, teachers and parents all insist on this, a culture ordered to the True, the Good and the Beautiful will start to take hold. If it takes hold, our children will have a chance at authentic freedom – that true freedom which comes from our being free from our unrestrained passions and free to love Him for whom we are made. Ultimately it all comes down to the words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.”

Try having your child write those words of St. Augustine, in pencil, then have them color the words, with pencils. Once they have done so, you will have a wonderful homemade saying to live by worthy of a place of honor on your refrigerator.


[2] ibid


MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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