When cows type: the power of the written word

My friend and Poynter colleague Chip Scanlan has called me many things over the years, including “a Philistine with a Ph.D.” I resemble that remark. In fact, I celebrate the seeming contradiction. I grew up in a working-class, television-drenched culture that immersed me in the world of The Three Stooges, roller derby, and Little Richard. On a parallel track, I experienced an elite parochial school education that pointed higher and higher to a world in which I could speak easily about Shakespeare, Aquinas, and T.S. Eliot.

One practical effect of this duality: I am never surprised by the diverse sources of enlightenment. It may come from a strange inning in a baseball game; a subway map; a Latin inscription atop an academic building; a 700-page novel; a ship’s manifest from Ellis Island; a tweet; a fortune cookie; a children’s book. If you are only a Philistine, “disdainful of intellectual or artistic values,” you will never gain altitude. If you live atop an ivory or ivy tower, you will never feel your feet in the sand.

So, if I were teaching a graduate level class in, say, “The First Amendment and the Five Freedoms,” the second text I would read (after the amendment itself, of course) would be a children’s book titled “Click, Clack, Moo/ Cows That Type.” Written by Doreen Cronin, a collector of antique typewriters, and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, this contemporary (2000) beast fable offers insights into the powers and responsibilities of free expression. By virtue of a recent experience, I can attest that the book satisfies its intended audience (ages 3 through 7) and transcends it.

Just this week I addressed a group of college writers at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and decided to use my 10 minutes to read them “Click, Clack, Moo.” When I announced my intention, I was surprised when a little voice in the middle of the crowd exclaimed, “I love that book!” It was a young girl named Isabella, a first or second grader, sitting on her mom’s lap. I invited her to sit next to me so she could enjoy the images in the book along with the text.

In the story, some cows find an old typewriter in a barn and learn to type. Farmer Brown hears them typing and talking: “Click clack, moo…clickety clack, moo.” The cows deliver a note to the farmer: that it is too cold in the barn and that they want electric blankets. He is outraged as the protest spreads from cows to chickens. Unless demands are met, there will be no more milk and no more eggs.

The farmer tries to cut a deal with the cows, and, in one of the most mature sentences in a story for kids, we learn, “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.”

In what looks like a rash act of appeasement, the cows trade the typewriter for the blankets. But it turns out that the technology of expression will not be silenced.

The next morning he got a note:

Dear Farmer Brown,

The pond is quite boring.

We’d like a diving board.

Sincerely,

The Ducks

Click, clack, quack…

Clickety, clack, quack.

The final page shows a duck’s tail feathers as he enjoys a dive into the pond. Power to the … uh, … farm animals.

Even most of the journalists I know cannot name the five freedoms enumerated by the First Amendment:

1. Freedom against the establishment of religion.

2. Freedom of speech.

3. Freedom of the press.

4. Freedom of assembly.

5. Freedom to petition government for redress of grievances.

Religious issues aside, “Click, Clack, Moo” exemplifies the other four freedoms. The cows and ducks express themselves in their individual languages: Moo and Quack. They express themselves via a miniature form of a press, the typewriter. They assemble to express their concerns collectively. And they petition the farmer because they have complaints about working conditions.

As I was reading this work aloud to about 50 adults and young Isabella, she laughed out loud at all the key moments, sparking enthusiasm from every corner of the room. I am not suggesting that “Click, Clack, Moo” ranks in social commentary with the “Grapes of Wrath” or “Animal Farm.” But as a parable of literacy and democracy, I’ll take it over most of the stodgy professional texts I’ve read on the subject. But, then again, I’m a Philistine. With a Ph.D.

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