Revenge of the Typists

My high school, since moved (the original converted into a seniors residence), was one of those heavily renovated in the late 1960s. Chief among the renovations were the “vocational” areas — the school was fitted with a wood shop, a metal shop, and a home economics area that would rival Martha Stewart’s ranch in the diversity of appliances and resources.

When you started your five years of high school (for in Ontario high school went from grade 9 to grade 13, a practice that comes to an end this year), you were quickly forced to choose between an “academic” stream and a “vocational” stream.

If you went “academic,” then you were in for 5 years, and took classes designed to bolster your university acceptance, but of little practical value otherwise. If you went “vocational,” then you stayed only for 4 years, and took classes that would lead towards either community college or a trade.

Not only did this system result in very marked social stratification, but it both denied vocational students an opportunity to change their minds and go to university (at least without a Herculean effort to bootstrap themselves back into the academic world) and denied academic students an opportunity to gain anything resembling practical skills.

One of those practical skills was typing.

At the east end of the school, above the metal shop and beside the art room, was the typing room. In that room, each desk was outfitted with a typewriter (manual or electric, I cannot recall). And that’s where you went for typing class.

While computers were present at the school from the beginning of my time there (in grade 9 there was a single Commodore PET that you could, among other things, play space invaders on), they were very clearly an academic pursuit, and the world of computers and the world of typing were two very different worlds, with no crossover.

The result of this is that unless you were in the vocational stream, and took typing, or were a geek (like me) and learned to type by sheer persistence, you didn’t learn how to type.

Indeed my own typing, which I can do quickly and with some efficiency, suffers from a “home brew” approach to learning, and I couldn’t find the “home keys” if I tried, and I go about 50% slower than the theoretical maximum because there’s a lot of “made a mistake, backspace, correct” built into my loop.

I came to think about all this today because I got a note from a friend of mine, let’s call him “Phil.” Phil is a well-paid professional living in Charlottetown. And Phil can’t type. I know this, because the longest email I’ve ever received from Phil is “I will call you later to discuss this.” Originally I thought Phil was just brusque, but that didn’t sync with his otherwise voluble nature. Then I realized that, given his age and career path, Phil would never have had any cause to learn to type.

I began to think of all of the successful post-40 year old professionals that I know, and I realized that none of them can type. Which explains why my email messages to them are long and detailed, and their responses are curt (another explanation is, of course, that I never know when to shut up, but that’s another story).

And so we have an entire class of people, the people who are at least nominally “in charge” of the world, who are disenfranchised from participating actively in the digital dialog about the future because they lack a simple manual skill.

It is the revenge of the typists, the final irony of the edu-stratification that was supposed to lead some to the promised land and leave others to open the mail and get the coffee.


Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on February 27, 2003 - 16:13 Permalink

So true Peter
I had to give up my secretary for 4 months to become a pecker. Most of my colleagues at my age, 53 soon, not only cannot type but can’t use any program of note such as the dreaded Power Point or Excel. It keeps them very vulnerable if they become free agents in later life. They have no skills that can get their ideas out of their heads.
Truly the revenge of the typists

Alan's picture
Alan on February 27, 2003 - 16:20 Permalink

…become…”??? [couldn’t resist. no personal resemblence to comment implied;-)].

Anyway, I learned to type through the Bob Rae’s Ontario Legal Aid crisis which required downsizing of the staff at our office and the typing on old IBM proto-computers (saved only onto a floppy). I know lawyers in this place that still use dictaphone, edit the copy returned by hand and then wonder why they are making no money.

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on February 27, 2003 - 19:30 Permalink

Hmmm, perhaps I should not have cursed by business school Dean, who mandated 50 WPM without error on a manual machine prior to graduation. Erk, that was 36 years ago.

Rob's picture
Rob on February 27, 2003 - 19:57 Permalink

Typing was a popular bird course that was available to anyone as an optional credit during my late 80’s High School daze (CGHS). My mother thought it was a waste of time, I thought it was a great break from Advanced Math, Advanced Chemistry, etc… It was at least 6 years before I actually had to start using my dormant skill, but it was like riding a bike. Best course I ever took.

Justin's picture
Justin on February 28, 2003 - 01:47 Permalink

I knew in grade 3 I’d need the skill. Didn’t realize it would involve computers though. By grade 7 or 8 Kejp had already introduced me to the coal-fired PDP-11 at UPEI and I almost exploded with impatience waiting for grade 10 and the chance to take typing. Boy, did I ever take a rough bit of ribbing by my classmates in grade 9 when they found out I was taking a “girls” course. Didn’t matter… I’m still laughing last.

Darin's picture
Darin on February 28, 2003 - 01:58 Permalink

I was of the “academic” stream at SRHS. You are absolutely correct in that we were honed only for university acceptance. Heck, I didn’t even know what a community college was until I finished my second year at University of Waterloo. (I thought “college” meant taking auto mechanics or hairdressing at Holland College in Charlottetown). I changed my education path, and now have three very useful College diplomas.

I would like to send my high school this message: Just because a student has top grades, he shouldn’t be shipped out to university, and denied access to college.

I’m certain things have changed in the 21st century.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on February 28, 2003 - 05:04 Permalink

Like most computer nerds, I learned to type in a pretty fast hunt-and-peck method. I know this wouldn’t cut it in the long run, so in high school, I tried out the old classic Typing Tutor for DOS program. It worked! I learned the proper positions (mostly), and stuck with them for the two weeks where is was still faster for me to two-finger it. I’ve never looked back.

KevinD's picture
KevinD on February 28, 2003 - 20:32 Permalink

I dropped typing at CRHS after 2 classes and switched to Ancient History. I have a BA in history but then went on to Holland College and now work as a computer programmer. I have been able to use ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘The code of Hammurabi’ at Trivial Pursuit but I suspect the typing would be more useful day to day.

Derek's picture
Derek on March 1, 2003 - 19:54 Permalink

Identical situation here. In highschool in PEI in the early seventies, I was told that the typing class was for the vocational students. We academics would have no need of typing, as, in later life, there would presumably be a gaggle of vocational students hanging around waiting to do our typing for us.

When I got to university, I was told that, due to my extreme lack of penmanship skills, I was required to type all my essays (and I was an English major!). While in highschools, I had picked up typing using my mother’s old Remington, but I learned it myself, and never developed the speed and flow of those vocational students who I still haven’t found to do my typing for me.

Now for the revenge of the typists:
about 20 years after I left high school, I found my self at the Provincial VOCATIONAL Institute, where I was asked by a friend to reconfigure a speech card for a visually impaired student. The computer was situated in the typing class. The student was not there, but the typing instructor was. I mentioned to her that my university and work life would have been made much easier had I been allowed to take typing in high school. She expressed surprise that the curriuculum didn’t permit it, and asked “well, why don’t you take a typing class now?”. I informed her that I was now untrainable due to the bad habits that I had picked up learning typing on my own. She expressed confidence that anyone could learn typing at any time.

She went back to her desk while I configured the computer. About 20 minutes later, she comes back and says to me” “you know what? You’re right! Your rhythm is erratic, you don’t use the proper fingers for the proper keys, and I really don’t think you could be retrained!”

Here’s where I get MY revenge: while the 90 wpm touch typists struggle with Repetitive Strain Injury, my erratic typing means that I don’t have the repetitive rhythm, and I do not suffer this problem! I have also mastered the fine art of cut and paste, and can generally get more words on a page in less time than just about anybody (although it may not be the first time I have typed some of them!)

Justin's picture
Justin on March 2, 2003 - 01:07 Permalink

Hey, repetitive strain syndrome will come from improper techinque. See a different instructor. Twenty-six years of typing did me no harm… the last 18 years were intensive. The important thing I always remember is that except for the shoulders God gave you, NOTHING should support any part of your hand or arm, and if your chair has arms on it, get one without. The only problems my hands ever suffer is long fingernails because I cured my habit of biting. :) Thank you Anna Fraser for the most excellent typing class and the old manual Adler. Not needing ever to see each keystroke is a freedom one should know.

art's picture
art on March 3, 2003 - 01:22 Permalink

Nova Scotia had the same philosophy of education when it came to learning typing in the late seventies. In my high school, it required several extra classes and was literally impossible to fit in if you were following an academic stream. All three of my kids have now learned to type properly, and have taken to broad smirking as my fingers do the bizarre contortions that seem to produce text at a somewhat acceptable rate.

Jared Diamond writes in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that the QWERTY keyboard was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering, it puts the commonest letters all over the keyboard rows and concentrated them on the left hand side to throw off the majority of people who are right-handed. The typewriters of 1873 jammed constantly if adjacent keys were struck in succession, so the design was purposely created to be inefficient in order that there might be less hassle experienced with the hardware. I wonder how many computer applications have this kind of history.

sasfasf's picture
sasfasf on May 31, 2004 - 04:09 Permalink

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