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The End of Handwriting

Do we still need to write with our hands?

A few months back Anne Trubeck wrote a short article calling for the end of handwriting instruction in schools.  It resulted in 1300 comments.  That is some pent-up anger there.  She has now revisited the question in more depth and it is clear that the future of handwriting is bound up with the future of digital writing media.  It is worth pondering just what the role of handwriting is and whether it is justifiable as a pedagogical tool or whether it is just one more (very stubborn) vestige of an outdated media heritage.

Trubeck’s basic point is that why teach handwriting when you can teach typing — handwriting has been so imbued with a sense of class and moral privilege (the good penmans were good people, and also men…) that leveling the playing field with a less “expressive” writing medium will make writing more democratic.  She draws on recent research that shows how teachers grade handwritten papers better that are more neatly written ones — privileging form over content.  And she gives us one example of her son (who could stand in for many kids) of how struggling with handwriting leads to struggling with writing more generally.  Learning how to write with your hands is actually really, really hard.  19C handbooks that were trying to bring handwriting to the adult masses had all sorts of tips about tying up people’s bodies to help them write neatly.  So why take the time (and the risk of failure?)  No more discouraged handwriters, just confident typers.

Trubeck’s point is that the history of writing has been about inventing greater degrees of automaticity to bring thought and materialization ever closer — so that the technology does not “slow us down”.  It’s an interesting point and recent nostalgic returns to handwriting are often framed like the “slow food” movement.  One more artificial practice to resist the speeding up of culture.

But Trubeck also gestures toward (her own) concern about the loss of handwriting, one that has to do with the loss of a sense of person in automated writing.  She admits that seeing letters from her grandmother is profoundly moving, in a way that finding her grandmother’s emails probably would not be.  It’s this interpersonal aspect of handwriting that I suspect often gets overlooked when we think about getting rid of handwriting.  History is once again a useful guide here: as I discuss in a chapter of my book on Romantic miscellanies, handwriting in the form of gift inscriptions (and underlinings) was a key means of establishing a network of affectioniate ties between readers.  Romantics did not just see handwriting as a sign of self (the famous rising obsession with autography around 1800).  They also saw it as a technology for promoting emotional connections between readers (and selves).  At precisely the moment when readers became increasingly worried about their isolation from one another because of the overwhelming amount of new reading material (sound familiar?), handwriting served a key function in rebuilding those personal ties.  Losing the ability to craft a handwritten note means losing the ability to put a sign of your person into someone else’s (reading) life.  It wasn’t really about slowness as it was about interpersonal connection.

There are other concerns too.  For example, there is an important affinity between script and drawing as associated expressive practices.  Handwriting reminds us of an important visual dimension to reading, just as it also reminds us of the way writing inflects how we think about graphic practices.  Losing handwriting would be a further way of creating a gap between these two communicative practices, a gap that seems to impoverish the important ways they inform one another.  What would drawing be without writing?  And how much less interesting is reading when it lacks any visual identity (as in the horrid screens of e-readers, one of which I just bought…yuck)?  What will happen to cognitive development, for example, when the road to writing does not pass through drawing?

Watching my son learn to write letters is a fascinating experience.  The thought of having him not learn this seems profoundly troubling, as Trubecks’ many readers attested.  But this worry seems, I think, to have less to do with my own nostalgia for the handwritten letter (I rarely write by hand these days and don’t seem to miss it).  Rather, it stems from concerns having to do with a missing piece of our mental puzzle.  My son is learning to draw while he learns to write and he is learning to read while he learns to write, and all those aspects are bound together in his brain.  The thought of disassociating them seems to disempower some of his cognitive and creative potential — not to mention having one less tool at his disposal to convey his future self to another.

But perhaps most importantly, in learning to write with his hand he is learning to make those letters, just like he is learning to make the figures he draws.  There is a craftmanship to letter writing (and drawing) that I do not wish to lose.  Unlike typewritten letters, handwritten letters are constructed; it is this learning of construction that marks out the single most important aspect of handwriting to my way of thinking.

Who would want to lose that as part of the saga of human creativity?  Surely it is worth the effort.

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