When I started high school my mother said: “You are going to college, but because you don’t know what the future holds, you are also going to learn how to support yourself. Therefore, you are going to take typing and shorthand.” The typing she had in mind wasn’t the half-year “personal” typing course; it was the two-year sequence that covered mastering the basics, acquiring speed, and formatting all kinds of office documents. This was in the days before computers formatted everything for you (whether you want them to to or not), before word processors, even; this was when an IBM Selectric was the state of the art. However, we only got to use the much-coveted Selectrics in the second year. For the first year we were stuck with the old Smith-Corona manuals and, as a result, we developed incredible finger strength, which in the following year caused all kinds of problems on the electric machines. False starts were legion in the early days of Typing II, when it seemed the merest flutter of the fingers over the keyboard sent the ball racing.
Signing up for typing and shorthand required a great deal of persistence, as it was almost impossible to schedule “business track” and “college prep” courses for the same student – because why would anyone want to do that? As my guidance counselor was more horrified than helpful, and couldn’t think of a way around this scheduling problem, I decided to drop the not-required-for-graduation upper level math courses and put in typing and shorthand instead.
I think I may have committed blasphemy in proposing this solution. The remarks were pretty much divided between: “You are too smart to be taking typing and shorthand” and “You Will Regret This When You Don’t Get Into College.” I stood my ground, however. I can be stubborn. And what’s more, I have never ever regretted it.
Frankly, it was an excellent trade off. I not only got into a very competitive university on early decision, but once there, because of my typing skills, I was able to get several office jobs that helped to pay the bills. Furthermore, immediately upon graduation, I was able to land a job in my field. I may have been hired at first because I could type, but my responsibilities soon expanded way beyond the typing pool. Probably the icing on the cake, though, is that I can honestly say I have never yet encountered a situation where I regret not being conversant in imaginary numbers – thereby making the score in this battle Me – 3, Guidance Office – 0.
I never became as fluent in shorthand as I was in typing. I found this odd even back then, because my passion at the time was for learning languages. I was taking both French and German (something else the high school did not make easy. Apparently one foreign language was considered enough for anyone in polite society. Two were simply uncouth and a waste of time.) It was only later, in college, when I found my real passion and started studying linguistics that I figured out my problem with shorthand.
To really learn something you need to understand its framework. If I had been aware of the linguistic – phonological organization of the Gregg Shorthand squiggles, I don’t think I would have struggled nearly as much.
In shorthand, similar sounds are simple variations of the same stroke. For example, English has eight voiced/voiceless pairs of consonants. This means that the sounds in each pair are made in exactly the same way with reference to the lips, teeth and tongue, except that one sound vibrates the vocal cords (the voiced sound) and one doesn’t (the voiceless sound). The pairs are /p,b/, /f,v/, t,d/, /s,z/, /sh, zh (the end sound in rouge)/, /ch, dg (the end sounds in birch and fudge), and /k,g/. The sound we write /th/ also comes in a voiced – voiceless pair, but we don’t discriminate that in our alphabet.
In shorthand squiggles, the voiced consonant is merely a longer version of the voiceless one. /t/, for instance is written with a short diagonal line (lower left to upper right) and /d/ is just the same line, only longer.
Years later when I discovered this, everything clicked. But in high school, the fact that Gregg shorthand is based on phonology was never, ever mentioned. Not once. Perhaps the teacher didn’t know. Perhaps she just saw shorthand as an exercise in brute memorization. Perhaps business students weren’t considered “smart enough” to grasp the finer details.
My mother’s mantra was that no bit of knowledge is ever wasted. My mantra is that mothers are usually right – whether that means taking typing in high school or learning as much as you possibly can about what you are studying.
I should end this post right here; I have circled back to the beginning and tied it all together. However, I can’t resist asking (and answering): what (else) is being taught in schools today without a clear understanding of the framework behind it?
For a start, I would hazard a guess that natural law, along with its attending natural rights and freedoms, the value of a person, the horror of slavery are not being traced all the way back to their original birth in Christian thought, but simply left out there as “good ideas.” Well, so is shorthand a “good idea.” It makes a whole lot more sense and is less easy to forget, though, when you understand the background behind it.