Dan Nielsen: Skill set — Typing and firemaking

Dan Nielsen

I was pounding away on my computer keyboard the other day when I realized how much my typing skills have improved since that long-ago high school semester when I struggled to earn a passing grade in typing class.

Each desk in that room was equipped with a manual typewriter. Each chair was equipped with a teen who hadn’t previously used a QWERTY keyboard. We all were neophytes, raw beginners, in the art of pounding keys.

How times have changed.

I seriously doubt if any American high school freshman today lacks sufficient keyboarding skills to surpass the average executive assistant of the 1970s or 1980s.

Back then, the common term for executive assistant was “secretary.” The word “secretary” derives from the Latin “secretum,” meaning “having been set apart” and “secretarius,” a person overseeing business confidentiality. Secretaries were charged with many duties, including the requirement of keeping business information secret.

Keyboards today do anything but keep things secret. People pound keys — all day and all of the night — to broadcast their thoughts and opinions across the globe.

(“All Day and All of the Night” was a rock song recorded by The Kinks in September 1964 and released as a single 30 days later. SecondHandSongs.com lists 63 versions of the tune recorded by the likes of Little Roger & the Goosebumps, Bernie Tormé, Quiet Riot, Cactus Jack, Ray Davies & the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and the Scorpions. I mention this only because I am continually fascinated by the long-term financial return sometimes provided by creative endeavors like songwriting.)

Typewriters a few decades ago were expensive devices used to put thoughts on paper. Smartphones and laptop computers today are expensive devices to send thoughts through the internet.

Paper can be locked up or burned, the secrets they held returned once more to the vault of human memory. Email and other electronic files, though, seem to linger forever on one server or another, never to be fully erased, always available to those willing to look.

Secrets on the internet are not secrets. And everyone can share information on the internet.

Keyboarding in the pre-computer age was a specialized adult skill usually acquired through repetitious hours in the classroom. Keyboarding today is a life skill usually acquired voluntarily during down time at home — frequently by children.

Keyboarding classes still exist, but today they’re taught mostly in grade school. By the time students are in high school, most can type at blazing speeds that far surpass those achieved by their parents.

I vaguely recall that hitting something like 35 words per minutes on those manual typewriters in my class would earn an “A.” I think I earned a passing grade at maybe 25 words a minute. I don’t mean to brag, but I can do better than that these days on a computer keyboard — as can most eighth graders.

The skill set required to survive has changed drastically through the ages. Valued skills have changed as society has evolved. Hunting and gathering were the most valuable skills in mankind’s early stages. Valued skills evolved through fire-building to tree-chopping to hard-rock mining to mechanical engineering.

I recall childhood hours devoted to honing skills in marbles, mumblety-peg (a game that cannot be played on school grounds these days, and for good reason) and basketball. One summer I got into woodcraft lashing skills, and I filled the forest behind our house with an assortment of rustic lean-to structures, most of which sagged and collapsed within days.

I haven’t built a lean-to in decades. Nor have I played mumblety-peg or marbles. I do build a campfire now and then. At that wonderful moment when tiny flames burst into the confidence of a steady flame — I need to resist the urge to dance around the hearth like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Castaway and chant “I ... have made ... fire!”

Primitive skills somehow are more magical than modern skills.

But those outdated abilities get little practice in this modern era.

Today all you really need to survive in society are the skills required to use a keyboard and a credit card.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@record-eagle.com.

Business Editor