GOOD

Stop Teaching Handwriting

"Handwriting is a blip in the long history of writing technologies and it's time to consign to the trash heap this artificial way of making letters."




My son, who is in third grade, spends much of his school day struggling to learn how to form the letter "G." Sometimes he writes it backwards. Sometimes the tail on his lowercase "T" goes the wrong way. His teachers keep telling him he may fail the state assessment standards. We have had several "interventions." Simon now fears taking up a pencil. Repeatedly being told his handwriting is bad (a fine-motor-skill issue) has become, in his mind, proof that he is a bad writer (an expression issue). He now hates writing, period.

This is absurd: I am a college professor and a freelance writer, and the only time I pick up a pen is to sign a credit-card receipt. Let's stop brutalizing our kids with years of drills on the proper formation of a cursive capital "S"-handwriting is a historical blip in the long history of writing technologies, and it's time to consign to the trash heap this artificial way of making letters, along with clay tablets, smoke signals, and other arcane technologies.

Many will find this argument hard to swallow because we cling to handwriting out of a romantic sense that script expresses identity. But only since the invention of the printing press has handwriting been considered a mark of self expression. Medieval monks first worried that the invention of printing would be the ruin of books, as presses were more idiosyncratic and prone to human error than manuscripts produced in scriptoriums. And the monks never conceived of handwriting as a sign of identity: For them, script was formulaic, not self-expressive. That concept did not appear until the early 18th century. Still later came the notion that personality and individuality could be deduced by analyzing handwriting. All the while, print became widely available, and handwriting lost its primacy as a vehicle of mass communication.

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We cling to handwriting out of a romantic sense that script expresses identity.


The typewriter took handwriting down another notch. Henry James took up the then-new writing machine in the 1880s, most likely because he, like my son, had poor handwriting. By the 1890's, James was dictating all his novels to a secretary. And as novelists and businesses were putting down their pens, others started to valorize handwriting as somehow more pure and more authentic, infusing script with nostalgic romanticism. The philosopher Martin Heidegger was particularly guilty of this, writing in 1940 of the losses wrought by typewriters: "In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, is inscribed in beings themselves. ...When writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e. from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man."

Meanwhile, back in school, teachers were trying to get student papers to look like typewritten documents: letter characters, the students were told, should look like fonts.

The pattern doesn't change: As writing technologies evolve, we romanticize the old and adapt to the new. This will happen with keyboards, too-some contemporary novelists have ceased using them already. Richard Powers uses voice-recognition software to compose everything, including his novels. "Except for brief moments of duress, I haven't touched a keyboard for years," he says. "No fingers were tortured in producing these words-or the last half a million words of my published fiction." Powers is wonderfully free of technological nostalgia: "Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. ...For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right," he says to his computer.

That shortfall is exactly how my son describes his writing troubles: "I have it all in my memory bank and then I stop and my memory bank gets wiped out," he explains. Voice-recognition software-judging from the rapid-fire monologues he delivers at dinner about Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!-would help.

No matter what we use to write something will be lost between conception and execution. I have yet to be convinced that making a graphite stick go in certain directions enhances intellectual development. Let us teach our kids to use the best tools at our disposal: There are plenty of cool toys out there. Boys and girls, it is time to put down your pencils.
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