Up the Down Staircase is a very funny and insightful treatise on the inanities experienced in any systemic organization. In this case it is public education. Well, at least it was back in the sixties when it was originally written. Unfortunately, although many (if not most) of the examples of stupidity remain, they have been sufficiently exposed in books, movies, cartoons, and corporate feel-good posters so as to qualify as old news hackneyed revelations. But they’re still fun.

Bel Kaufman’s novel (memoir?) is constructed from letters, memos, student assignments, administrative bulletins, and a smattering of narrative. It works but I often found the text fading into a morass of disconnected words and letters. Why?


But before I defenestrated the book (actually, before purging it from my iPad) I stopped to remember. Back in the sixties things were different. I was in college before I experienced my first photocopy machine, and even then it took up a whole room in the basement of the library requiring a half-dozen workers to copy, collate, fold, and staple, while eager students waited in the smoking room. I was brought up in an environment of mimeographs, film strips, card catalogs, smoking in the boys room, and Lindy pens. Although sturdy light-blue canvas covered three-ring binders were common, a half-dozen pages torn off of a Big Chief notepad and stuffed in a back pocket also did the trick.

I suspect that IBM and early computers should carry a lot of the blame for ALL CAPS. Even though ancient typewriters were proficient at lower case letters, IBM insisted on ALL CAPS for all their technical documents. My first Apple ][ was ALL CAPS but I hurriedly added an extra memory board which allowed me to type upper and lower case just like they did in Europe. Thank goodness lowly ascii overtook and eventually abolished IBM’s EBCDIC.

Today, if you use ALL CAPS on the internet it is reserved for YELLING!

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