Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Millions of unhappy children driven mad by this Method

Retired teacher and librarian Bob Warren displays a fine style as he shows MacLean Method handwriting. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 5, 2010


The classroom on the main floor at George Jay Elementary looked much as it did many decades ago.

Two orderly rows of desk faced a chalkboard on which had been drawn tidy parallel lines, ideal for practicing one’s handwriting. A slate had been placed atop each desk.

A few books, their yellowing pages dog-eared and showing signs of foxing, rested atop the teacher’s desk. One was a reader featuring the brother-sister tandem of Dick and Jane.

Another was a rectangular booklet. The author, Henry Boyver MacLean, had been the school’s first principal.

Many years ago, H.B. MacLean headed an education commission in the province. A familiar complaint among teachers was the poor handwriting of students. Mr. MacLean decided to tackle the problem with a scientific approach. The result was the MacLean Method of Handwriting.

British Columbia has delighted the world with its innovations, from fuel cells to diving suits, from helicopter logging to such Web pages as Flickr.

The MacLean Method of cursive handwriting was one export not universally acclaimed. In its day, the penmanship primer was the cause of untold classroom torments throughout the Dominion and the Commonwealth, a scourge for clumsy-fingered boys and inattentive girls most everywhere in the English-speaking world.

“I spent countless hours doing the swirls,” said Bob Warren, 63, a former teacher and librarian who retired from the elementary school two years ago. “We probably had to do it until we got it right. Sitting upright, arms at the right level, wrist at the proper angle. There’s a fair bit to it.”

Like many schoolboys, he had an opinion about the lessons.

“This is silly,” he remembers thinking, though he mastered the style.

The educator returned to his old school on the weekend for celebrations. Former pupils were invited back to the grand stone building constructed on a farmer’s dairy field 100 years ago.

Mr. Warren is the author of a history of the school, for which he researched the background of the school’s first principal.

MacLean was a minister’s son born at Mount Herbert, PEI. He began teaching at a one-room schoolhouse on the Island, for which he earned an annual salary of $125. His own verdict on his talents: “I was terrible.” He later became vice-principal at the new Macdonald Consolidated School at Hillsborough. (The principal was Walter Jones, a future premier.) The construction was sponsored by Montreal tobacco magnate Sir William Macdonald, whose intent it was to replace dingy rural schools with modern facilities staffed by properly-trained teachers.

In 1909, Mr. Maclean moved to British Columbia to become assistant principal at South Park Elementary. The following summer, he married May MacKenzie, a former star pupil, to whom he had presented a pen on her 17th birthday. He then began his term at George Jay.

The method he developed had features immediately recognizable to any familiar with the style. He demanded rounded letters; a precisely crossed t; an a with a fatter body and full descender, so as not to be mistaken for its vowel cousin, the o.

The technique demanded a sweeping, full-arm movement, proper paper placement, and rhythmic writing movement.

On their slates and, later, in their practice books, pupils wrote endless versions of the Maclean maxim, “Practice makes perfect.”

They also scribbled countless renditions of a sentence famous for including all 26 letters: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

A common reward for achieving fluency in the style was a certificate. These would celebrate a student’s success in “sitting in a healthful position,” or “holding pencil correctly,” or displaying “good point printing.”

The certificates included a reproduction of the founder’s signature rendered in a script unquestionably legible, though certainly lacking in personality.

Among those frustrated by the method was a young Justus Havelaar, a Dutch immigrant who went to school in Terrace. For him, the MacLean Method was madness.

“The thing I remember most is my poor motor skills,” he said. “And there were those wretched ink wells with straight pen nibs. I still have nightmares about those things.”

In Grade 9, his father, concerned about the poor quality of his handwriting, bought the boy a fountain pen with an italic nib with which he developed a tidy cursive script of his own. He went on to become an English teacher like his father. The elder Havelaar, now 95, lives in Courtenay, while the 65-year-old namesake son lives in Campbell River.

He was asked about the state of his handwriting these days.

“Of course all that’s gone,” he said. “I don’t write with a pen.”

The only time he picks up a pen is to write a cheque.

MacLean last visited George Jay school for the opening of a new gymnasium in 1972. His textbooks were falling out of favour, though they had been on the curriculum longer than any other in the province.

He died in Vancouver in 1976, aged 91. He was hailed in obituaries for devising a system used by millions of Canadian school children. It was also noted that he had served as a handwriting expert in court cases involving forged wills and threatening letters.

The Vancouver Sun hailed the educator in an editorial. “Toward the end of his life the Method fell into some disuse, criticized for being too regimented, too opposed to individualism. Perhaps. But it was the work of a man who wanted us to communicate better with each other. No small ideal.”

The entire 175-word editorial was rendered in a fine, readable version of the Method.

You might say MacLean left his mark on the province, even if in this computer age the writing is on the wall for handwriting.


Dad said...

I was great to read this commentary and history of my great uncle Henry's life and work in BC. I recall the writing but also his great fondness for magic - slight of hand and card tricks he practiced for hours.
Dr Brian Barrett

Unknown said...

Hi Tom; Could we reprint this article on the site? I have been looking for details on this part of island history around the MacLean Method of Writing and finally came across this article.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom; Could we reprint this article on the site? I have been looking for details on this part of island history around the MacLean Method of Writing and finally came across this article. Please email Vivian (website editor) at