The Death of Handwriting?

I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia – which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.

Monkey typesBut perhaps (or at least I hope) the cursive-doomsayers are a little premature in hauling out their bandwagon in a Twainian manner.

Like they did with the book, the newspaper, the land-line phone and vinyl records, technology pundits have been debating the death of cursive writing – handwriting or longhand – for many years, arguing that technology has surpassed the need to use it. Keyboarding (that ugly noun-into-verb neologism for typing, which has a quaint, secretary-ish feel) is more important, some say.


Beautiful handwritingThe need for handwriting skills is as great as ever, but handwriting is not just about making letters. That’s really just printing. Handwriting involves a complex union of cognitive and fine motor skills, pattern recognition, symbol assessment and planning. Learning handwriting helps us develop as whole human beings.

In a paper on the haptics of writing, researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay wrote,

Writing is a complex cognitive process relying on intricate perceptual-sensorimotor combinations. The process and skill of writing is studied on several levels and in many disciplines, from neurophysiological research on the shaping of each letter to studies on stylistic and compositional features of authors and poets… recent theoretical currents in psychology, phenomenology & philosophy of mind, and neuroscience – commonly referred to as “embodied cognition” – indicate that perception and motor action are closely connected and, indeed, reciprocally dependent…
During the act of writing, then, there is a strong relation between the cognitive processing and the sensorimotor interaction with the physical device… In light of this perspective, the decoupling of motor input and haptic and visual output enforced by the computer keyboard as a writing device, then, is seriously ill-advised… The hand is as much at the core of human life as the brain itself. The hand is involved in human learning.

Imagine trying to read, say, a handwritten manuscript or document without knowing that the letters you see in longhand are the same as those little precise symbols on the screen. Not knowing that the small squiggle is an ‘a’ and that loopy-thing is a ‘b’ and so on. It would be like the average person trying to read Sanskrit or hieroglyphics.

We need all three word-related communication skills: printing, cursive and typing and each has its use and purpose. Having one does not mean the others are irrelevant. Longhand is as far from an educational fossil because of our computerized world as a book is because of TV. Technology does not always displace, but can complement, even enhance existing practices.

A recent article on Mashable opens with the headline question, “Has Technology Killed Cursive Handwriting?”

These days, with our fingers tapping on QWERTY keyboards, Evernote taking the place of sticky notes and tablets replacing paper notebooks, a question arises: Has the rise of technology led to the fall of cursive handwriting?

cartoonAs I read in the history of the future (those retro predictions of future life made 20, 50 and 100 years ago), I find similar arguments. In the future, no one will walk because we will all have automobiles. No one will drive because we all have personal helicopters. No one will fly because we have teleportation devices. No one will cook because we will all eat highly nutritional, pre-prepared glop. No one will farm because robots will do it for us. No one will go to an office because work will be done at home. No one will need to sign anything because we will have bio-scans. And on and on.

Today we read predictions that in the future no one will write in longhand because everyone will use computers. That goes onto the same shelf with tales of flying cars and personal spacecraft. But it seems some people are trying to make it come true.

Blogger Samantha Kemp-Jackson wrote,

…the desire learn to write – literally – has all but disappeared from our cultural conscience. Children these days emulate their parents and elders and aspire to do what they see their esteemed role models doing. One doesn’t have to look very far to see that what is being done by these people rarely includes anything close to the act of writing, of bringing pen, or pencil, to paper. No, what is being done involves keyboard strokes, texting and video or voice messaging. Writing with a tool such as a pencil or pen, is nowhere in the mix. As a result, is it any wonder then that cursive writing – once a standard of the elementary school experience – is in its death throes? Cursive – the ability to join letters via script in a conjoined or flowing manner is a lost art.

She also notes some repercussions of the loss of handwriting skills:

  • The manual dexterity, precision and fine-motor control are skills that children gain from the act of using cursive will be in short supply
  • Our children’s academic abilities will be hindered when cursive writing is replaced by keyboard strokes
  • A large part of our cultural history will become lost as a result of cursive being phased out in schools
  • Children’s ability to read important historical documents or letters from grandparents or older relatives will be severely hindered
  • Our children will never know the sense of achievement felt after finally “getting it” following many months of earnest practice of each and every letter of our alphabet.

Last summer, I filled out two forms at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Both required me to use handwriting – not just printing – to complete the forms. This year I mailed half-a-dozen letters to people asking for ukulele-related material or my tequila pocket guide. All of them required handwriting to address the envelopes or add notes to the contents. I carry a small notebook with me everywhere, full of my handwritten notes and comments, and references to material I’m reading and researching. The grocery list on the fridge, the to-do list on the whiteboard, the sticky note on my computer about backups, the additions on the wall calendar to remind me: all handwritten.

Samuel Johnson's letterNow perhaps because I delight so much in writing in all its forms  I am the exception, rather than the rule, but I doubt it. My wife works in a medical office and everything the doctors and technicians write is in longhand, which is then transcribed to a computer. Everyone there has to be able to both read and write longhand.

My dentist and my veterinarian keep similar handwritten notes that are later transcribed. I and most of my council colleagues make longhand notes on our agendas to raise questions later.

People who cannot write longhand may still be able to print, but cannot sign their name. They are condemned to clumsily making their letters on printed forms and documents.

One could not even begin to appreciate, let alone do calligraphy without a solid base education in cursive writing. And how would one read a vintage, handwritten document?

The teaching of cursive has become a significant issue among educators, some of whom are woolly-headed enough to ignore the longevity of cursive and instead focus myopically on emerging technologies.

In the USA, several states have dropped it, while others stoically maintain it in the curriculum. There is no rhyme nor reason to the keeping or dropping thereof. But that’s generally true of public education – it is often trend-driven.

Is handwriting “old school” asks an article in Canadian Family magazine. No way, replies Dr. Marvin Simner, author of Promoting Skilled Handwriting (Canadian Psychological Association). He thinks the problem lies not in the learning but in the teaching:

The main problem, he believes, is that handwriting today is moving away from formal instruction and is often taught in a more anecdotal fashion. “Handwriting is largely a motor skill that needs to be taught in a very specific manner.” Jan Olsen, founder of the education program Handwriting Without Tears, agrees. That may be why more than 4,000 Canadian teachers have been trained through her company’s workshops. School work, even at the college and university level, and many jobs do require handwriting, she explains. “So it’s important to master it, particularly cursive writing, which is faster and more efficient.”

Longhand, or cursive, teaches us to think strategically. You need to plan for the page size, to fit your words into its width – there is no automatic wraparound. You need to think about the words themselves: how they are formed, how they look and most of all, how they are spelled. There is no automatic spell checker, either: you need to know how to spell words. The importance of punctuation and capitalization are apparent in longhand.

You have to think harder, clearer when you write on paper. Cursive writing makes you smarter. At least that’s what William Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University believes:.

…learning to write cursive requires attentiveness and conscious control over fine hand and finger movements. An important need in the cognitive development of children is to develop their ability to focus, self-awareness of what they are doing and how they are doing it, making their muscles do what they want them to do, and responding to the feedback from knowing what improvements in control are needed and making those adjustments.

Without cursive, how do you sign your name? You can’t: without a signature you lose a part of your personality, as a grade 8 Ontario student found . He had never been taught to write, just print. As the Toronto Star story tells us:

The first mention of cursive writing in the Ontario curriculum comes in the Grade 3 language section — and only as one example of how a student can “demonstrate their learning, along with PowerPoint, drawing or printing,” said Anne Marie Laginski, superintendent of education for the Uxbridge and Brock area.
“Under the language curriculum, it’s mentioned briefly about six times between Grade 3 and 8, so it’s a choice for students,” she said — not a must. “The real focus is to be digitally literate and to think creatively.”
In an increasingly diverse school system, the English Language Learners curriculum warns that cursive writing may be difficult to recognize for students not familiar with the Latin alphabet used in English, she noted.

And in a related story, The Star notes sadly that an 18-year-old can barely sign his own name:

What used to be an essential life skill has now been reduced to all but a memory for these teenagers, who smile and laugh while reminiscing about the workbooks they used to practice their slanted letters in.
“Each day would be a different letter, we’d kind of just write it out hundreds of times,” Veillex says.
While he remembers his name, his classmate Fraser Cruickshanks remembers nothing. At first he says he never learned cursive, later he admits he just didn’t retain it.
Even now, he struggles to sign his own name.

It’s like our schools are deliberately creating a generation of functional illiterates. Wonder why the conspiracy theorists haven’t glommed onto this as a New World Order threat or something with UFOs and WiFi?

Lisa van de Geyn, writing in Today’s Parent adds:

Government decision makers in Ontario and Quebec (and in about 45 states south of the border) have already pulled cursive as a learning expectation from the curriculum. (Prior to 2006 in Ontario, it was listed in the grades three and four language syllabus.) And Quebec’s ministry of education now says kids in elementary school can choose the ways in which they convey their ideas when working on assignments — it’s not mandatory for kids to know how to write in script. So far, just Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island’s ministries of education have stated definitively that there are no plans to remove cursive from their schools.

Allowing elementary school kids to make decisions like that is like letting your dog choose its own vet. They are not knowledgeable, mature or experienced enough to make such crucial decisions for themselves. Who are these government dunderheads who set such a lame-brained policy? Kids need order, structure and discipline otherwise we’re going to have a generation of spoiled, egotistical, selfish kids with more interest in their own selves and their “self-esteem” than in others, than in manners, learning, social interaction and civil behaviour… oh, wait a sec…

In BC schools, cursive is being dumped, according to the Maple Ridge News:

The writing is on the wall – longhand, or cursive writing, is increasingly considered a dying art, and may be dropped from the B.C. school curriculum.
The Education Ministry is conducting a curriculum review, deciding what “core competencies” students should be developing. Cursive writing, which is taught to students in Grade 3, has been taken out of the curriculum in draft documents…
It is undoubtedly less often used and less relevant to today’s student, while keyboarding and electronic communication takes over. But should it be dropped?

Less relevant? When kids can’t read handwriting? What claptrap. The story quotes from a school trustee who expresses what I call the New Age codswallop approach to education – that schools are a place for children to decide for themselves what they should learn:

Sarah Nelson, a parent and school board trustee, said she is more concerned with focussing education on the skills students need today.
“It is so rare now that I pick up a pen myself, that focussing heavily on a skill they likely won’t use doesn’t seem the best pedagogical choice,” she said.
“If the concern is about intelligence and creativity, there are many ways that we can develop these in our children. If I had to choose between a personalized learning opportunity, driven by the student, versus being taught cursive writing, I would opt for personalization every time.”
She explained that is the way to spark a child’s natural curiosity, and create life-long learners.
“While I see the value in a basic standard for all learners up to a point, I would rather see our teachers have the freedom to teach more from an inquiry model, where students focus on their own passion, rather than receiving a formulaic education that is prescribed by curriculum with little freedom to follow the interests of learners.”

“Students focus on their own passion…”? That’s the sort of intellectual quicksand that has led us into the trap where we can’t fail bad students because it will hurt their “self esteem” so instead we fob them off on a teacher upstream to handle. Can you really see kids adding classes like math, grammar and history to their “passions” to learn in the classroom?

On a brighter note, The Star also tells us trustees for the Toronto Catholic Board want cursive to be returned to the curriculum. Good for them.

Shakespeare's willHandwriting has survived, has served human culture since it was first invented, some 5,000 years ago. When it first came, every culture it touched leapt forward in great strides; each developing new forms of communication, new types of art, new ways to calculate, new laws, new ways to codify and recall stories and edicts… nothing was untouched by the invention of writing.

Until typewriters came along in the late 19th century – and not a common device even in the office until the 1920s – all authors wrote in cursive. Printers transcribed their handwriting into type for publication. James Joyce wrote his epic novel, Ulysses, by hand.

I have looked at the lovely, indecipherable “secretary’s hand” on Elizabethan documents in the British National Archives and legal calligraphy on 17th century land deeds carefully written on sheepskin.  That’s Shakespeare’s will on the left, by the way. Like all of his plays, it was handwritten, laboriously written with quill and ink. I had the privilege of holding that piece of paper in my hands and admiring the writing thereon, a transcendent moment for me.

Old postcardEach person’s handwriting is unique, like their fingerprints or voice. Handwriting is a personal expression of style, of intent, of meaning. Take it away and you take away a crucial ability of a person to express herself in a way no other person, no other method can duplicate. Keyboarding? Typing? Meh. Anyone can type. It’s impersonal. Mechanical. Trained monkeys can (and do) type.

Have you ever received a postcard with someone’s handwritten comments about their visit to some far-away place? Or wondered over a vintage postcard you’ve found in an antique store, reading the words written 100 years ago and finding yourself linked to that person, that story intimately because of the writing on the back? Would you feel the same if the content came from a computer or printer?.

Ever get a thank you note or greeting card without a personal addition, without a note or signature added? If so, it feels cold, impersonal, merely commercial, even contrived. It’s like email. But to receive a real letter, written out by hand, is touching and delightful. And deeply personal.

As noted on Smashing Magazine (with a gallery of beautiful handwriting examples):

… handwriting is unique, it has a tremendous expressive power a standard lettering isn’t able to achieve.More than that, handwritten text can be incredibly gorgeous. In fact, there is nothing more valuable than a beautiful handwritten letter sent to your beloved ones.

Amber Daugherty, writing in the Globe & Mail, added another dimension to the conversation:

Brought up in a world pushing hard for digital-first, all the time, students don’t understand the importance of creating something that is uniquely theirs that doesn’t come in the form of code. They aren’t being taught to value that. It’s surprising, particularly because there is such an emphasis in the world placed on brand creation. “Everyone is their own brand,” we hear…

A signature is something that is uniquely ours. It is something we have created, that no one else can replicate (nefarious motives aside) in true likeness. An Internet password is none of those things. By neglecting to teach our children the value of cursive writing, with which they can create their own physical mark, are we setting them up to have their digital identities stolen, with no real, hard-copy ones to back them up?

In one study on the ability to recognize print versus cursive writing among college students, the researchers found students could more easily recognize printed letters – losing their ability to read handwriting. They summarized:

In a world of rapid technology and the ever-declining medium of handwriting on paper, it is not surprising that college students would be more apt to recognize print letters. In a setting where computers outnumber humans, and research papers are a regular occurrence the way one writes on paper becomes less of a factor in cognitive processing. Just as previous studies have described, when one stops or less frequently activates a particular thought, its baseline strength slowly decays. Perhaps the experiment put forth in this report was less indicative of how people think about letters, and represents instead a sign of the times.

Which suggest to me that pretty soon these students, when asked to fill out a form, will pick up a crayon and scrawl big capital letters in the little boxes… that part of their brain that was used to write and read cursive being hopelessly atrophied.

Andrew Coyne makes several cogent – and poetic – points when he wrote in the National Post, in an article titled “Losing longhand breaks link to the past” that,

With handwriting, you create the letters anew each time, using much more complex motor skills. Whether it’s the flowing motion of the arm, or the feel of the page under your hand, or the aesthetic satisfaction of a well-turned “f”, it seems to engage the more intuitive, right-brain aspects of cognition.

Tapping into your intuition is a critical part of writing, or indeed of thinking. Finding just the right word for a given thought is rarely a matter of rational choice: rather, it seems almost to suggest itself, its own peculiar welter of connotations and associations emerging as a match to those surrounding the thought to be expressed. Often you cannot immediately say why it is the right word. It just is.

That process of letting your mind rummage about in its library, subconsciously comparing words until it finds the right one, may sound vague, or aimless: but it’s really about precision. I know of poets, who value precision in words more than anyone, who refuse to write on a computer for this very reason…

As with many older technologies, its virtues consist partly in its defects… Text on a computer is infinitely corrigible: We commit to nothing, either in words or sentence structure. This frees us to make an incomprehensible mess of things. We sail out recklessly into a sentence with no idea of where we are headed, and get lost.

Handwriting, to the contrary, forces us to make an investment. The words are there on the page; we can’t change them, except to scratch them out. It inclines us thus to compose the sentence in our heads first — and the sort of sentence you can compose and keep in your head is likely to be shorter and clearer than otherwise.

Let us not allow cursive to vanish from the curricula, let us not allow handwriting to become a lost skill,an anachronism practiced only by some rare aficionados, the sort who still fix grandfather clocks or make their own furniture. Let’s keep it as an essential skill that links us to the very beginnings of our history, a key part of our intellectual and cultural heritage.
* I admit to a personal passion for typography too; I consider the alphabet the single greatest invention in human history; the structure and design of its forms is particularly pleasing to me.

2 thoughts on “The Death of Handwriting?

  1. Ian Chadwick Post author

    Good piece in the New York Times that notes:

    Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

  2. Pingback: The Death of Handwriting? | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary | Neurophysiology – What is neurophysiology?