Editor’s note As I prepare for class this weekend, I have some guest posts and reader’s questions prepared for us.
The poor hands of the modern person are becoming nothing more than useless stubs. While not everyone spends their spare time chiseling a statue, painting portraits, or building houses, it is, in theory, possible to make dinner, write a letter, and shuffle a deck of cards. Alas, even something as simple as unlocking a door is becoming too much trouble for the modern human. In fact, humans spend so many hours a day cradling a phone in their hands that doctors have observed that there is a tendency in some people to develop an oversized thumb.
There was once vanity, but it was of a different sort. There is a fairytale popularized by the Brothers Grimm about a girl who hated to spin so much that her mother was fed up and beat her. A passing queen heard the cries and inquired as to the problem. To save face, the mother told the queen that she was too poor to keep her daughter in enough flax to satisfy her need to spin. The queen took her away and as a reward, showed the girl rooms full of flax so she could spin to her heart’s content.
The girl was saved by three women who said they would help if they could be invited to the wedding of the girl and the queen’s son, to whom she would be betrothed after her success at spinning (of course). It ends well, the flax is spun and the three women were invited to the wedding—one had a large foot, another a large lip, and the last, a large thumb. The prince asked about this, and they admitted that their deformities were the result of treadling the wheel, licking the thread, and twisting the thread. The prince vowed that his bride would never touch a spinning wheel, lest the same misfortune befall her.
In an updated version, the oversized thumb would be a thing of beauty and correlated to one’s likes on social media.
Parents and teachers in the not-too-distant past were concerned that their wards would develop the manual dexterity needed for legible penmanship. Putting words on paper was not an end in itself, but it was also a way to create and strengthen the connections in the brain that made learning possible. While a child wouldn’t be able to say that they were developing their fine motor skills, they could thread a needle, wind a ball of yarn, and play cat’s cradle.
Along came the PC and then there was widespread anxiety that the children would be unemployable if they could not put numbers into a spreadsheet. Penmanship and even block printing became secondary, and children no longer had the opportunity to use writing as a truly mental exercise. Handwriting is coming back, a little bit, revived by those who have recognized what has been lost. But what has been lost will not be recovered in its entirety, and a generation has been lost to the computer.
Someone told me that if we let the little tasks fall by the wayside, that our giant brains will be used for greater things and thinking bigger thoughts. It is a pleasurable to ruminate on the possibilities, of course, but I have a hard time believing that the great things of the future were put on hold because we were too busy chopping vegetables or fishing for a key ring in a briefcase.