National Pencil Day: Who is Big Pencil?

Yes, it’s National Pencil Day again and I had a phone conversation yesterday that I felt raised a subject worthy of a bit of commentary here on our newly redesign Timberlines blog.  Also this is the first post since relocating Timberlines to our redesigned CalCedar website in honor of our 100th Anniversary year in business.

Over this past Christmas holiday I gifted a number of my friends a 1 year subscription to our Blackwing Volumes program, starting with our last Volume 530 release.  Yesterday I was speaking with one of these friends who mentioned how much his wife enjoyed the pencils for her art, but more importantly he had given his high school aged daughter a few to try as well.  She had recently taken up digital note taking in class about a month or so prior to that.  Having receiving trying and enjoying the pencils, she started back with hand written notes in class. She reported to her father that she she actually retained more of the content than when she was blindly taking note verbatim on her computer in class. I told him that there have been studies showing that the slower rate at which you can write versus type requires you brain to process and distill information to take notes and this leads to higher retention.  As has often been said by proponents of hand written notes, “I am not taking notes to remember things later, but to remember them now”.

This conversation reminded me of a Freakanomics podcast about a year ago I had listened to titled “Who Needs handwriting?” (Feb 10, 2016) in which some expert guest was predicting the death of handwriting and writing instruments and that these types of studies were all just funded by “Big Pencil”.   I vividly remember almost tripping in laughter as I walked along the beach listening.  The whole concept of “Big Pencil” and it’s nefarious ability to dramatically influence the mass market thinking on this topic seemed pretty ludicrous to me.  What pencil company in the world has the financial resources to do this?  Supporting and promoting such studies as an industry via an industry association for what little positive impact that can have with a very limited budget is certainly reasonable and prudent for the industry to make some small dent in perceptions and awareness of the values of handwriting.  And these studies certainly are not fake science by any means.

Meanwhile Apple, the most valuable company in the world, can afford to give hundreds of thousands, or millions of free iPads and computers to schools across the country.  So it’s more like “Big iPencil” if you ask me.  As programs such as common core and the like have driven increasing focus on digital learning and test taking I wonder if our children are really always better off.  Hundreds of millions or billions of dollars spent around the country to revamp education around the digital age and we’ve seen educational attainment decline over the past 20 years.  Certainly much of this challenge has other roots in social and economic issues we are facing.  However continual reinvestment in new educational technologies, just to be scrapped and move on too a new generation of learning technology is also driving up costs for strapped school districts which can’t even afford to buy traditional school supplies like pencils.  This pushes this financial burden back on teachers and parents.  Under these pressures and new thinking many schools drop teaching handwriting (or at least cursive) at all, as well as drawing, arts and music. These are all things our industry and our own company rightly support in many forms.  Not just because of our company’s economic self-interest but because what would a world be without these things and the creativity.

Please don’t think this perspective means I am against technology in education at all.  There are extremely strong benefits to exposing students to technology as part of the learning process.  I also certainly understand, as this guest expert proposes in the podcast, that some students struggle with learning handwriting and it might hinder learning in other areas.  However, there is a place for and value in both learning methodologies and I strongly feel the needs of a few who may struggle with such burdens of learning handwriting should not preempt the exposure to and learning of these and other manual skills using pencils and other writing and art materials for the many who certainly can greatly benefit.

Anyway, this morning as I was preparing to head to the office watching ABCs Good Morning America, I had a revelation about just exactly who is Big Pencil.  Here it is, March 30th National Pencil Day,  and they were doing a feature promoting a segment tomorrow in which Crayola will reveal which of it’s 24 colors was being discontinued on of all things National Crayon Day, March 31st. Now if a company like this can totally preempt National Pencil Day on national network television, my real concern is clearly “Big Crayon”.