The Monkeys of Typewriter Island

I write because I think. My thoughts need a form. I give them a form through the laborious machinations of word selection, ordering, and penning them on some hard- or soft copy media, following generations old rules.

My favorite author of all-time is Ray Bradbury. His prose is poetry. The meter, tone, tenor and lyrical nature of his writing captivated me early in my life. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are my other literary gods; Bradbury will always remain the pinnacle of the trinity for me.

Reading is a passion of mine. As a youth, I would hide under my covers with a flashlight so as to prevent any light from spilling out under my door, giving away my late night foray into adventure. Another decent trick was to take clothes from my dresser and push them against the bottom of my door. I would read into the wee hours, through Royals baseball, and into the radio show which dealt mostly about UFOs, Bigfoot, and government conspiracies.

My father asks, “Why do you buy so many books? Why don’t you just use the library?”

The library was my home away from home, growing up. Located beneath a grocery store in a shopping center three blocks from home, I would spend hours every day during summer vacation reading and wandering among the shelves. Little stickers on the binding would give goers a hint about the book; a magnifying glass was “mystery,” a rocket ship meant “science fiction.” Other stickers might have existed, those were the two I cared about. I would read my books, write the titles on a pre-lined form, and upon reaching 25 titles, I would turn the list in to the librarian and I would receive a free book from a selection of brand-new books arranged on a table near the check-out counter.

But, for me, the library also had a downside. I had to give the books back. Spending a day, or three, or a week, developing a relationship with the characters, and indirectly the author, and then having to give the book back felt appalling. Would you play with a puppy for two or three days, then return the puppy to the shelter? Some would, I imagine. Not me. Characters, themes, scenes, story arcs, and the energy the author placed into developing his or her fictional world was a relationship to me, albeit a very one-sided relationship.

For some, sure, reading is purely entertainment, nothing more and nothing less. I am no different. However, I also consider the time, effort, energy which a book has been imbued by the author. A book is not merely a pulp-based product containing letters and words arranged in clever ways. Well, actually some books are not much more than a collection of words which at first blush appear to be intelligently arranged yet upon further inspection lend credibility to the existence of The Monkeys of Typewriter Island. I think Typewriter Island might be part of the Self-Publishing Archipelago; being a geographer one might think my geography skills should be more attuned.

For some, those who don’t read and their counterparts, those who don’t write, writing is seen not simply as drudgery but as a form of torture. I’m pretty sure water-boarding of most Americans would be unnecessary:

“You have a choice: write a 3-pg essay on the Man vs. Nature elements of The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, or water-boarding.”

I’m pretty sure most college students would elect water-boarding.

In my college-level geography classes I pose the following essay question:

You are a technology entrepreneur and have been working out of your garage for the last 18 months developing a new technology. You wife and family have had enough, and thankfully, you now have some financial backing, i.e. venture capital, to relocate to more substantive environs. Given the nature of your efforts is technology, locate three cities in North America which could make a good home for your new technology company. Then, narrow your selection to one city. Explain your selection process using the 7 Traits of a Technology Hub as discussed in class.”

Sometimes, the responses (which I have captured, errors and all, below) border on literary bankruptcy:

“I would either go to California or Texas or Florida. California would be a nice place to continue a business it has a high yeild to gain economic profit and so does Texas. Californica and Florida are located on the ocean so they would have easier shipping access for products. All three states for the most part have a high level of population. All three have about the same amount of rail way routes but since Florida is a smaller state it seems they would have more travel consumptions to other states. Florida and Taxas are smoother flatter states as to California has the rocky mountains making vehicle travel harder but if i had to place to continue the business i would settle in Miami Florida because it has the best of the most the features i mentioned.”

“The three cities I choose were Atlanta, Philidelphia, and Dallas. Each of these cities are driving more than every and are continuously growning…One reason is beacuse the city offers tax incetives for new jobs created. Another reason is because there are colleges there. Which intern means, newly educated people looking for employment.”

Frequently, I boggle at the presumed importance of barge traffic, river systems, and the need for unskilled labor in response to questions about technology-based businesses. While the importance of UPS and the USPS is without question highly important in the delivery of books to my doorstep, and the delivery of consumer electronics to Best Buy, Target, and Wal-mart is also highly desirable, I fail to see how Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, or Twitter might even remotely find barge traffic part of their business plan.

After reading about globalization, non-governmental organizations, broad issues of immigration, and the growing interconnectedness of our global societies, I pose another writing assignment.

After having read about the nature of Globalization, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a number of societal issues and concerns, I want you to communicate your own personal geography. You drive through your town, the countryside, on your way to work, school, church, and now, with a little bit of training, you are hopefully more aware of the life going on the other side of your windshield. Describe your Personal Geography.”

Think about your personal geography. Let your mind ferment some thoughts as you read these responses.

“I see geography at work all the time, especially what I was younger and we went on road trips. On those road trips we would drive through the mountains and they were so beautiful. There was so much definition it makes you wonder how they got to be that way. I have also been through the dessert. Even though there is really nothing out there to see but the sunset and how everything grows…It is amazing to realize that all this goes on and how it affects us in our everyday lives but also wiht geography…We can always count on our surroundings and our environment to always be there for us.”

“In this section of studying its made known that peoples geography is much different than other peoples geography…someone who lives in the United States has total different geography than someone who lives in the Country of Asia, Australia, or Germany.”

“In my everyday life i use geography in more of a younger way. For me being a Freshman college student I use geography for simple things. Like mapping out how to get to ____ from louisville, How to get around a mall without back tracking, and also how to use development to pick where i want to go to school at. Geography is not that big thing in my everyday life sense i am so young.”

“The area around us is very unique, we have two large rivers that combine to make a larger area that formed into a larger lake because of a dam. Also to the east of us we have the appilation mountains that forms a location of intrest if your into high altitudes hiking or into snow sports. The demograhics have a major influces in the how you live to because the different age ranges of people means you cant just talk to people about local gossip if thier 80 years old and doesnt no about that.”

These are actual responses from college students. College students, meaning these individuals have been passed along through our U.S. educational system, from kindergarten beyond high school. These people either graduated from high school or worked to earn a GED.

Reading and writing is fundamental to education. Reading provides us with examples of how are written language should appear, the form and function our language should assume. Reading helps our brain create imagery, trains our brains to transform symbols into meaning and then into images. I’m describing communication and I feel stupid doing so. Everyone should have basic fluency in reading and writing skills. U.S. citizens proclaim, “ya gotta speak English if ya want to live in this here country!” Yeah, well, apparently reading English and writing English isn’t all that necessary, even for natural-born citizens.

Reading truly provides us with brain “food” for thought. Writing, on the other hand, helps us sow more brain “food,” by helping us not only train our brains for thought but also aids us in communicating those ideas and notions to other people. Writing, to continue my agrarian-themed analogy, is pollen, seeds of thoughts, notions, ideas, and images which take root in and yield potentially yield luscious fruit. Or, fall lifeless in the desert of Dogma, awaiting for the literary equivalent of Climate Change, er, “Idea Warming,” as in, “I’m warming to your idea of selling cupcakes door-to-door.”

Meanwhile, China, India, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and an entire host of other countries cannot learn English fast enough. Many of my international students struggle with American English. Rightly so; American English is the 4th hardest language to learn, behind Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. I would throw in Korean, too.

Our American Education System cannot continue to dilute the importance of reading, math, and science. As a society, we will ultimately fail. Social fragmentation along income and educational lines will occur, and these ruptures could potentially fall along regional boundaries. The New England states do very well in school-aged spending, median family incomes, ACT scores, and overall academic achievement. The Southwest states of Arizona, New Mexico, along with Oklahoma do not fair well, and neither does Tennessee, Mississippi, or Louisiana.

I provide writing samples simply to illustrate efforts by recently enrolled students in Higher Education. These students have been passed along through Primary and Secondary Education, and now find themselves in Higher Education. As new adults, students often do not recognize they are now responsible for their own effort, not Mommy or Daddy, and they now have to engage their brains and use what they should have been taught in high school. So often, I am told, Standardized Testing rules the classroom, with little room for creativity. Additionally, with “blended” classrooms containing Special Education students through gifted, teachers are often forced to “teach to the middle” abandoning either end, or focusing on the time-consuming needs of the learning disabled to the detriment of other students. In the end, the students lose, and the loss permeates our society creating fractures in our economic and social systems about which I have previous posted.

I hold students accountable for their efforts. One cannot simply say, “that’s what I was taught,” or “I was’t taught that.” As an adult in Higher Education, a student has to bring an effort to the classroom and not simply be a respirator of oxygen anchoring a chair. However, I also want to say to administrators and drafters of previous education reform efforts, “thanks for making my life difficult and creating class after graduating class of adults who are barely literate and are unable to abide the rigors of college. Furthermore, you should be ashamed of what you have wrought upon these people, in molding them into people unprepared for Life outside of high school, and setting them up for failure. Only by their own graces will these students be able to correct the damage your policies have inflicted upon them.”

Education is a fundamental right, not a privilege.

3 thoughts on “The Monkeys of Typewriter Island

  1. Oh, wow. I hear your pain. I read your pain!! But is standardized testing the way forward to make these kids more literate? Perhaps if they enjoyed school more, if they were encouraged to read what they loved rather than what they had to read, wrote about what they were interested in rather than what they were globally assigned, they would have been more interested in learning and got better at it?? As you know, I have a desperate fear of my son (and my daughter) not growing up to be good writers (I think they’ll be OK readers at least) yet I don’t want to force them down this road. I just hope that modelling being a decent writer and encouraging a lot of reading will do the job! It is so desperately important to me that they don’t write like these kids – the spelling! (or indeed think the way they do) BTW, if I had more time, I’d quite fancy a crack at that Cooper essay 😉

    • I am no fan of the current means of testing currently employed in the U.S. Some assessment is needed to make sure kids are learning. In my day, we called those assessments, “grades,” and if you didn’t apply yourself, you got held back. Currently, at least in Kentucky, the school district needs the approval of the parents or guardian to hold a student back. This is terrible. We are too afraid of stigmatizing kids by holding them back, yet we allow them to advance which simply postpones their failure and does nothing to correct. Schools need the power to assess and hold back, if necessary, children who need more work. Parents, in general, are biased and perhaps not good arbiters of their child’s academic progress.

      I loved reading. My sister, not so much. My former step-son loves to read. My former step-daughter, not so much. Some people are predisposed to enjoy reading, others not so much. Reading and writing need to be stressed as fundamental tools for living, in general, encouraged for further success, both personally and professionally. Shoving reading and writing down kid’s throats can have the opposite effect.

      I try to find backdoors into topics. Teaching geography through music. Teaching math through geography. Encouraging writing through geography. My step-son enjoyed comic books, so he and I read those. I read aloud to my step-daughter, using voices for characters yet she never really caught the bug. However, as she gets older, she may find herself writing and reading, as she likes theatre, plays, and such. She may find herself reading for a part, or perhaps writing a play. Then, she might find her muse 🙂

      Maybe your children will one day find themselves not wanting to read or write but something may inspire them. Writing comics. Or, music lyrics. Or, the storyline behind a video game. Thats where I suggest studying their environment, not as their parent, but outside that role, and see what you notice which could be used later as a catalyst for creativity. Kids are great teachers 🙂

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