Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The future of handwriting

As I have watched the progress of the young man I tutor, now 16, I continue to be amazed that he still prints.  He says his teachers haven't the time (or interest?) to teach cursive writing. His sister, graduating from college soon, also never learned to write cursively.   I find this amazing.

I recall some of the exams from my university teaching days, not long ago, and how many of the male students, it seemed, printed everything. I was glad to be able to read their work, but I would think the demands of time would force them to write.  I never investigated the issue or thought much about handwriting until recently.

I can remember clearly moving from the infantile printing stage to cursive, then at age 12 or so, my efforts to improve my handwriting and make it more sophisticated: a statement of my unique self. I continued practicing in high school until I got the form I now use, which is legible, if not elegant.  I can't imagine taking notes in class without knowing how to write cursively.

A recent article by Philip Hensher in the Guardian, based on his new book, The Missing Ink, brought all this to my attention.  He  does not mention this shortcoming in American education, which I gather is widespread over here; instead he focuses on what he calls the vanishing practicing of handwriting in an age of texting and email, when nearly everyone types.  He laments the slow death of the personal, the idiosyncratic, the sensuously rounded shapes of writing by pen; in short, the personal element.

Hensher, who teaches at the Univ. of Exeter, laments the omnipresence of cell phones and other gadgets that make communication less human and personal, more mechanical, than the traditional method of writing with ink.

It is true, of course, that sloppy handwriting has cost business millions, as countless pieces of mail get returned each year by the postal service because they are illegible (not to mention doctors' prescriptions that are indecipherable).  If it's bad for business, I guess, the message filters down to the educational establishment that teaching cursive writing, at least in this country, is one of those frills we can dispense with.

Writing mechanically as I am now enjoying doing is faster, and speed is important in modern society. So is clarity. But, as Hensher points out, what about slowing down a bit and being thoughtful as we write?  What about our writing as an expression of the individual's inner self, his or her personality?  Nothing can replace for me the first handwritten draft of an article, with all of its cross-outs and erasures; it is an artifact, a tangible sign that, like my ancestors, I have inscribed something onto paper.  The physicality of writing is a hard thing to dispose of. Unnatural.

Typing on the word processor is wonderful, but are we to write sympathy notes, greeting cards, and thank-you messages electronically?  If someone fills out a lengthy application in a medical office, must he print it laboriously, like a third grader?

Handwriting used to be essential in communication; now it is becoming marginalized. This is not a major tragedy, just another sign of depersonalization.  In the U.K, apparently, at least half of the teachers still devote some time to teaching handwriting (according to a study cited by Hensher).

Prof. Hensher would be appalled at the printing that the students I have encountered call writing.  If he revises his book, he might want to include a look at classrooms on this side of the Atlantic. I hope I am wrong--that some American students are being taught to write in that flowing, mature, possibly elegant thing called cursive.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

I do not think students of today are being taught cursive writing. I don't think any of my ten grandchildren use cursive, and three of the four who have completed elementary school attended an excellent Catholic school.

In elementary school, I was taught the Palmer Method by the good nuns. I've attended many a business meeting in my working career and also attended many an adult class in which I was very thankful for having learned cursive writing, because I always take copious notes.