*This is intended as satire. David Ferrer is not old, cynical, technophobic or curmudgeonly. He’s actually a pretty pleasant guy who enjoys many modern conveniences.
Some technologies come and go, like the passing of a spring day. They were nice while they lasted, but they didn’t last long. Other technologies have lasting power. Once they’re here, they’re here to say.
Enter, the pencil. I know this is a “cynics” guide but I just can’t find anything cynical to say about pencils. They are fantastic! They are so simple, cheap, and easy, it’s like dating your best friend.
Deriving its name from the ancient Egyptian and Greek lead stylus called a pencilis, the modern pencil uses graphite (discovered c.1564), a cedar casing, a metal tip (the “ferulle”), and a little pink eraser made from rubber, vinyl, or plastic. This classic invention has met with some modern innovations including its roll-preventing hexagonal shape and varied darkness levels such as the light and simple Number 3, the artistically rich hues of the Number 1, and of course the world-famous international standard Number 2 pencil. Paint it yellow. Package it. Ship it to every school and household in the nation, and you might have just distributed the most useful little learning tool in world history.
This yellow piece of writing machinery is absolutely indispensable to education. Its central importance is rivaled only by pens, paper, and perhaps pocket knives. Pencils are to education as Duct tape is to household repair, or that little black dress is to evening wear.
But how, you may ask, could this little writing device be so important?
There are literally 1,376,599 reasons we could cite, but a couple reasons stand out. First, pencils let you externalize thought. Thinking doesn’t have to stay caged in your skull, or lost in the wind of spoken words. You can put your written words, charts, calculations, schematics, and doodles onto paper where they take on a life of their own. Once your thoughts are written, you can now interact with your own thoughts outside of your head! You can have a conversation with yourself, discover new ideas, meditate on old ideas, or draw a 120-page flipbook on the corner edge of your notepad. In this way, you can translate thoughts into visual and literary mediums, and then interact with the same ideas through different senses. Externalizing thought enables multi-sensory education. You can have a full-fledged debate, with yourself, using different voices, and extraneous discussion lines, using only a pencil and paper.
Sure, you might be saying, the pencil is a spectacular piece of technology but what else makes it so special?
Well, I’m glad you asked. I haven’t told you the best part: erasers! Erasers are the manual delete key that everyone needs to cope with life. Positioned at the other end from the pencil tip, the eraser is the polar opposite of the writing end. Like the positive and negative ends of a magnet, the eraser is the “yin” to the graphite’s “yang.” They are a perfect balance of writing and unwriting, a harmonious balance of creation and destruction in one device.
Bear in mind that the closest rival in the early days of pencils was the quill pen and ink jar. When people make mistakes with an ink jar, the whole page is ruined. An ink spill could ruin several pages at once. It could nullify a stack of books, besmirch your school bag, or stain the desk. And the whole school might need to be fumigated afterwards. Well, maybe not fumigated, but it was still a pretty big disaster to spill the ink jar. Quill and ink were not the kind of equipment that elementary students could handle. If you’ve spilled an ink jar, then you have perhaps a small sense of what executives from British Petroleum must have felt like.
Compared to the environmental fallout of ink spills, the pencil eraser is a major innovation. It makes mistakes manageable. Students can push through their errors, “fail forward,” so to speak, and learn from writing mishaps without having to abandon reams of paper to an ink spill.
Bear in mind, the pencil eraser is more than just a manual delete key; it’s a metaphor for life. Everyone needs erasers in life, don’t we?! We need to know that our mistakes aren’t permanent, that we can reclaim words misspoken, and correct our bad calculations. With erasers, we have the magic ability to unsay things. What a glorious gift to society! Instead of being stuck with your words, forever anchored to that stupid thing you said to your wife, or that really bad joke at work that made half the people in the office hate you, you should live and speak “in pencil.” Erase the mistakes. Don’t be a “pen” person. Be a pencil person. Be correctable, walk back your verbal miscues, and learn from your mistakes.
You can try to erase pen marks, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Pens can’t erase. Even the “erasable pens” can’t erase. Try it some time. It’s terrible. It’s an oil smear on page. The metaphor totally falls apart if you try to build your life on the concept of “erasable pens.” What a wretched life that would be!
Pencils, with erasers, have forged a permanent place in the iconic school bags of students past and present. Even in the computer and internet age, pencils are just the thing for jotting down a password, or recording that phone message for a friend, or adding “awesome sauce” to the grocery list. Pencils work even when the internet is down, or when the power grid is out. Pencils never need to be recharged. They can be sharpened easily, and replaced for almost no cost. And if you toss a pencil just right at a ceiling panel, they can dangle there for a whole semester before the teacher notices.
It’s difficult to imagine what education must have been like before pencils were invented. I have to imagine it involved a lot of profanity.
No technology can be this popular, this ageless, without some competition. Our modern pencils have a long-standing feud with their infamous opponent: pens.
Pens have value, don’t get me wrong. Pens are generally darker. They can be clicked, repeatedly if you desire. Fancy ones are like a thousand dollars so you can impress your billionaire friends. Good pens resist smudging. And you can do fancy calligraphy things with pens. Calligraphy might excite your grandma or you can use it to write wedding invitations to show off for your married friends, and shame your single friends about their less-stylish, unmarried lives. Since those single friends aren’t getting married, they don’t have any reason to add swirls to their capital letters. For shame. But calligraphy is a pretty slow process too, so you might want to start writing those invites now in case you want to get married within the next decade.
Pens are fine, I guess. But they haven’t been able to surpass pencils. You can’t use pens on answer sheets for SAT’s. Pencils are still the preferred medium for artistic sketches. And the big advantage of mechanicals pens—the clicky top—is now found in mechanical pencils too. So you can still have the warm fuzzy feelings you get from a pencil, without sacrificing that soothing, perseverating ‘click.’ Your ADHD will thank you.
There’s also an intergalactic disadvantage to pens. The story is told of how NASA, at the height of the U.S. space race with Russia, spent major money investigating new technology in search of a way for their astronauts to write in space. They needed a pen that could write upside down, with no air pressure, and in zero gravity. The problem perplexed our best scientists and engineers. After millions of dollars were invested in the project they finally made a working prototype of a pen that could write in outer space.
What did the Russians use? A pencil.
Apparently, the space race agrees that pencils are better than pens.
There is one problem with pencils though. And it’s a big one. For all its engineering beauty, it’s portability, it’s low cost, it’s functionality, it’s indispensable role in modern education, and all the many advantages pencils offer to the world, the one fatal flaw with pencils is that you can never find a pencil when you need one.