Pencil Pushers prevail in age of PC
By Gail Rippey, Sunday News Staff Writer
Come New Year's Eve, Julie Lawson won't be worrying about whether the whirling hum of the world's computers will be heard the next morning.
If people won't be able to send an e-mail or a fax, if they can no longer use a word-processing or math software program because some computer isn't YK compliant, then, she figures, so be it.
Lawson, who owns the Old Woodshed gift shop in Intercourse, said she's among the diehards who don't give in to all the modern conveniences.
No matter what happens when the year 2000 begins, she'll continue to rely on what she considers one of the oldest, cheapest and best-designed implements known to humankind: a pencil.
"It's a basic survival tool," said Bruce L. Sensenig, assistant to the Cocalico School District superintendent.
Throughout most of the last 450 years, the pencil has been the foremost transmitter of nonverbal communication.
Educators, as well as pencil manufacturers and aficionados, say the pencil isn't going to become a rare commodity anytime soon, despite the proliferation of low-cost personal computers and those that are small enough to fit in your hand.
"The so-called 'palm' computers attempt to merge the technology of the pencil with that of the computer, but rather poorly," said Doug Martin, an avid pencil collector and author of The Pencil Pages, a Web site for fellow collectors at:
Pencil advocates say that any electronic device will be less convenient than the pencil because of its size, power requirements and propensity for failure.
"The pencil doomsayers forget that pencil technology is centuries old and highly refined," Martin said. "Computers are still new, clumsy and inefficient by comparison."
Yeah, just try twirling a PC between your fingers. Or try whipping one out of your pocket to take down a telephone number someone reels off to you while you're standing on a street corner.
"Pencils even give you something to chew on while you think," Lawson said.
"It was once thought that the typewriter would make the pen and pencil obsolete, but that never happened, and it's been over a hundred years," Martin said. "I'll admit the computer and the calculator simplify a great many tasks that were once performed using pencil and paper, but I doubt they will ever replace them entirely."
And this from a man who makes his living maintaining computers at Bowling Green [Ohio] University.
Computerizing the Graduate Record Examination has come back to haunt Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the standardized test, which once consisted of filling in ovals with a pencil.
A Massachusetts test-taker has filed a lawsuit against the testing service, charging that a computer test she took was incorrectly scored. The score she received on the computer test differed widely from the score on a paper version she took a month earlier.
Lawson predicts a backlash will one day make a PC passe. "It'll be out as a status symbol," she said. "And pencils will be in vogue."
Representatives from a couple of the nation's leading pencil makers say she's not too far off the mark.
"The pencil is seeing a resurgence with groups who are growing tired of the e-mail and faxes," said Kristen Gehrig, product manager for Sanford Inc., Bellwood, Ill., which produces Eberhard-Faber pencils.
Faber-Castell, the world's largest pencil manufacturer, recently began marketing a desk set that contains five black-lead pencils, complete with silver-plated tips and extenders to protect the points, that sells for $395.
Till Quante, Faber-Castell's marketing manager for fine writing instruments, said the luxury pencils were introduced to "bring back the handwriting culture" that was thrown aside by modern technology.
Quante said when the calculator was introduced, those in love with technology predicted the pencil companies would die. When they didn't, everyone figured the personal computer would do them in.
"Just the opposite happened," Quante said.
Faber-Castell produces about 1.8 billion pencils a year, he said, and company officials are so certain that the pencil market will remain strong that they have started a reforestation program to maintain a constant supply of trees.
Jo Carol Walton, director of corporate human resources and community relations for Dixon Ticonderoga, Heathrow, Fla., confirms that a Dixon Ticonderoga plant near Pottsville, Schuylkill County, is closing by Oct. 31, but she emphasized it has nothing to do with pencils.
That plant produces markers and highlighters, and its operations are going to be combined with another Dixon factory.
Walton said Dixon's No. 2, a soft-grade graphite pencil, is demanded by schools across the nation.
"We sold over 90 million No. 2s last year," she said.
According to an office-systems trade magazine, about 2.4 billion pencils of all types are sold annually in the United States.
Dr. Larry L. Burkhart, Eastern Lancaster County School District superintendent, said that, typically, more elementary students use pencils than their counterparts in middle- and high-school grades.
The primary grades are the time when children learn cursive writing and develop their handwriting style.
"That's sort of a rite of passage," Burkhart said.
Even with more computers in schools, some students still prefer pencil and paper, said B. Jean Walker, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Elizabethtown Area School District, either because they lack proficiency in typing, or they may not have regular access to a computer.
It also could be because teachers want more writing.
"There has been a change in how students use pencils over the past five years," Walker said. "Elementary students are encouraged to do more writing compositions, beginning with a rough draft and moving through a formalized writing process to create the final composition.
"The Pennsylvania State System of Assessment has also been an impetus in increasing the amount of writing going on in the classrooms. Students are not only solving math problems, they are now required to write out a step-by-step problem-solving process."
The pencil is absolutely essential for doing math and science problems, said Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, a renowned mathematician who travels throughout Texas on a Dow Chemical Co.-sponsored tour talking with students, parents and teachers about the importance of studying math and science.
"When a computer can help get insight, or do tedious things faster, that's fine," Granville said. "But when we're getting down to basic concepts there's nothing better than the pencil and paper."
Dr. Ann S. Keim, Pequea Valley School District superintendent, doesn't believe the pencil should ever be abandoned.
"How would you do a crossword puzzle? How would you sketch? I can't imagine not using pencils. Maybe less, but never not at all."
Lawson said Lancaster Countians probably will be among the last to witness the demise of pencils.
"With lots of Amish around, we'll always have pencils," she said. "They never have a pen. And they'll never use a computer."