The Pencil is Mightier than the Pixel and the Pen

“Collars buttoned, shirt-tails in, shoes tied before entering my classroom.  Understood?”

“Yes, Mr. Moss.”

“Please do not use pens for any notes taken, or assignments given in this class.  Pencils only.  Understood?”

A brave soul raises his hand:  “Sir, Mr. Gleason has already banned pens from the Valley.”  (i.e., a charitable form of “Obviously, Sir.  This isn’t our first time around the block.”)

I love the unity of mission here–it is so much easier to reinforce an already established rule than to introduce a new one into the system.  The Heights is a place of few, but carefully considered and often unpublished rules.

Why is the pencil the ideal writing implement, particularly for youngsters?

First, it is more permanent than the pixel.  Due to the ease with which the typed word is summoned onto the screen, words are chosen (and spelled) with little aforethought.  We think it and type it, hoping that it sticks–something of a verbal Jackson Pollock.  The pencil, on the other hand, forces us to consider our words more carefully; a valuable habit to develop, especially considering how quickly and broadly the written word is now spread by technology.  There is a cost to modifying our pencil-produced work, and so we take a moment to consider whether the language soon to be imposed on the page is the best way to convey the thought in the mind.  How often do we type on impulse, thinking to ourselves, “I’ll modify if necessary,” only to stick with what is written due to a tight schedule, an unexpected interruption, or a lack of diligence.

In short, boys ought to develop the habit of “thinking before they write,” which is more effectively taught, in our view, when the modification of the written word penalizes the writer by requiring him to furiously rub out an ill-considered streak of graphite, and scatter its rubbery remnants to the wind.

Second, the pencil, though more permanent than the pixel, is less permanent than the pen.  Our boys are taught to proof and edit their work.  The pencil, for obvious reasons, is preferable to the pen in this regard because the former allows revision.  The outward appearance of a written piece reflects the thought that has gone into it, and a homework assignment that bears the marks of Zoro throughout the page screams to the reader (or grader):  “Careless!”  The pencil is humble, and accepts correction more graciously–indeed, it invites correction, carrying right on top of itself the means by which we reshape its work.

In short, boys must develop the habit of proofing their work, whether typed or otherwise.  Proofing in pen is pernicious–“I’ll just leave this as is, otherwise the paper will look sloppy.”  Proofing in pencil is preferred–mainly because it’s actually possible.

Third, “that feeling you get when” you have sharpened the pencil for the last time, and the battle-worn, eraser-less, two-and-a-half inch veteran of an implement goes to war for the last time.  It’s a great feeling, and I think this is a result of a few things.

  • First, the pencil is made of wood.  Obviously.  But there is something really satisfying, isn’t there, about using natural materials?  (Yes, we use pencils from “sustainably managed forests and controlled sources.”)
  • Second, sharpening a pencil is, itself, a gratifying process, particularly when done with a hand-cranked, non-electric, good-ole-fashion, grind-it-out in the back of the classroom, pencil sharpener.  Any time our boys can use a simple machine to accomplish a task, we have a minor win.  So much of our daily life is not just mechanized, but automatized as well.  Simple machines and processes remind us of cause and effect, and yield a satisfaction you cannot derive from the push of a button.  Shop Craft as Soul Craft is a book on this point that has been making waves of late.
  • Third, writing with a newly sharpened pencil feels like you’ve received a new lease on your literary life–a fresh verbal start that can serve to reset not only the quality of the print, but the quality of the content as well.  Relatedly, please remind your sons to sharpen their pencils for homework if you see them pushing so hard on a page that the resulting print is carbon copied onto your dining room table.  For the sake of your furniture and our eyes, a sharp pencil is much appreciated!
  • Finally, actually keeping track of a pencil until it is no longer serviceable is, itself, a good act of discipline and stewardship.  In the ideal world, we might even ask our sons to turn in their expired pencils in exchange for a new Ticonderoga.  Likely not a practicable idea, but the habit of keeping track of something until the end of its useful life is one that is good to reinforce in an age that might be referred to as the age of the disposable.

There is something romantic about pencils, and we, as Cavaliers, are romantics.  But, on a more pragmatic level, there are definite and valuable pedagogical reasons for the ban in the valley.

(A somewhat related and very interesting read on note taking generally was posted on our facebook page a few months ago:  take a look here)

Rich Moss

About the author:

Rich Moss


Rich earned his B.A. and J.D. degrees, both Magna Cum Laude, from the University of Notre Dame, in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Prior to returning to his alma mater to lead its Admissions Office in 2010, Rich was an associate attorney in the Energy and Trial Practice groups of Jones Day in Washington D.C. While working as an attorney, Rich was also the vice-president of The Heights Alumni Association. During law school, Rich was an Article Editor for the Notre Dame Law Review. Rich graduated from The Heights in 2001. In addition to his work in the Admissions Office, Rich teaches AP US Government and is the faculty advisor to the Rock Climbing Club. He resides in Wheaton, Maryland and is a parishioner at St. Andrew Apostle in Silver Spring. When he’s not introducing new families to The Heights, you might spot Mr. Moss biking around Wheaton with his awesome wife and four youngsters, or climbing Carderock with his fellow Heights alumni climbing partners!

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