Since it has become everybody's business to reform education, permit from this corner a word about the mechanics of learning. Many years ago I asked the dean of my alma mater why no credit was given for the mastery of typing or shorthand, and he replied beneficently, ''There is no body of knowledge in typing.'' Quite right: it is not a three-dimensional discipline, on the order of poetry or physics, but it is the principal means by which John communicates with Jane or, for that matter, with the world at large.
Typing reached a new age with the discovery of the chip. It is fashionable to condescend to word processing. Never mind. It is to the writer, whether professional or amateur, what the tractor is to the farmer. And those who rail against it do so for the most practical reason: they have not mastered its use. They strive for metaphysical formulations to justify their hidden little secret (sloth and fear). But those of us with X-ray vision: we know, we know.
Consider the recent denunciation of word processing by the poet Louis Simpson, done for The New York Times. When Milton described the obstruction of Lucifer (''Whence and what art thou, execrable shape, / That dar'st, though grim and terrible, advance / Thy miscreated front athwart my way / To yonder gates?'') he spoke no less scornfully than Simpson of the word processor. Listen:
''Poets do have to make changes, but they cannot think so; they must think that the next word and phrase will be perfect. At times, and these are the happiest, they have the feeling that words are being given to them with absolute finality. The word processor works directly against this feeling; it tells you your writing is not final. And it enables you to think you are writing when you are not, when you are only making notes or the outline of a poem you may write at a later time. But then you will feel no need to write it.''
To accept Simpson's thesis is to suppose that writers (and poets) always feel that the language of the moment is lapidary, never mind that, when detoxified, they proceed to make changes. The easiest way to handle Simpson's miscreated affront is to remind him that words engraved onto a computer's memory are everlastingly there if that is the writer's election, but that they are vaporized instantly and handily if that becomes the writer's election.
If it should happen that someone prefers to compose using a pencil, the proper attitude toward him is simply to look to one side, as one would do if one came upon a writer who could only compose with a teddy bear on his desk. The word processor is very soon discovered by the writer to be something on the order of overdrive in an automobile: like shifting from first gear into overdrive, that's what it feels like. Like swimming in a pool infinitely long, so that you need never turn around. Aahh!
Just as schools and colleges should encourage students in word processing, they should encourage the mastery of touch-typing, which permits the user to turn his head to one side, reading material he is simultaneously typing, without looking at the keyboard.
The prejudice against learning by heart those 30 little keys is one of the great mysteries of the world. The great Rosalyn Tureck, who can play from memory all the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach, leans over her typewriter and, I kid you not, hunts and pecks. Even though she can sit down and play the 27th Goldberg without missing a note, she never bothered to learn that, on a typewriter, the order is Q W E R T Y.
It is a note of minor historical interest, popularized by the fine computer popularizer Peter McWilliams, that the typewriter keyboard reflects the deficient technology of a hundred years ago. When the typewriter was invented, keys could not be got to move as quickly as fingers, so that the configuration of characters was done to slow the typist down.
Let our teachers encourage the use of the tools of learning, and forswear nonsense about how Shakespeare would have written flatly if he had had a word processor. It is likelier that he'd have written eight more masterpieces, one of them at the expense of Luddites.