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Writing By Hand: the Lost Art

July 11, 2012, 3:00 pm

Today the Tenured Radical is feeling like the Tenured Crank, and not just because of the summer cold that has taken up temporary residence between her vacationing ears.

Over at HASTAC, where there are always a ton of great ideas for the digitally inclined, writing prof Teresa Narey highlights the question of whether young people will continue to learn handwriting skills. Given the shift to using computers in secondary school, and curricula geared to a techie world, will subsequent generations even need to learn to write legibly? Cursive writing, she argues in this post, “is becoming an outdated skill.”

Secondary schools are apparently divided on this issue: some still teach handwriting and some do not. Some schools teach handwriting out of tradition, without any real conviction that it is a skill worth having. “Contrastingly,” Narey writes, “many Catholic schools continue to make writing in cursive a priority. Encouraging quality penmanship and principles of etiquette are some of the reasons why Catholic schools persist in keeping cursive around.” One public school district teaches cursive not for its own stake but”as a technique to help develop students’ fine motor skills. Still,” she concludes, “more schools see the value in pushing keyboard skills.”

I want to thank Narey for raising this in such a creative way. Yours truly comes from a generation where grades one through three used paper with wide solid blue lines, each delineated space then subdivided by a dotted line. Capital letters were expected to reach the next solid line, uncapitalized letters the dotted line. Until you did it right, you had to write with a pencil, but when your writing was perceived as adequate, you were awarded the privilege of writing with a cartridge pen! By the fourth grade, handwriting was taught jointly with spelling: each spelling word had to be written five times correctly.

The thrill of cartridge pens (with many different possible inks — black, blue, peacock blue, green) aside, there wasn’t anything more boring than penmanship. Nothing more boring unless, of course, it was writing out spelling words over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and then having the paper returned with the places where lines had not been reached properly marked with a red pen. Looking back on it, I also wonder whether there wasn’t a disciplinary purpose to this exercise: no matter how stupid and boring your homework was, you would complete it. This was excellent preparation for later tasks that came my way, like certifying students for graduation in the major, grading and checking my own footnotes.

Narey suggests that there are at least two reasons students might want to learn cursive in a school world that is preparing them for a technological future. One is that they might need to be able to sign their own names, and the other is that if they become scholars they might need to be able to read someone else’s handwriting.

I find myself wanting a stronger defense of handwriting than this — and I say this as someone whose own handwriting has admittedly deteriorated over the last several decades. My sister, by the way, who had the same education and spends as much of her time on a computer as I do, still has lovely handwriting, so deterioration is not inevitable. However, my handwriting is completely legible and even distinctive. Why? I know perfectly well that how I write is a projection of who I am and how seriously I want someone to take me. Anything handwritten by me (a journal, a post it, a form filled out at a health care provider’s office, the writing section on the LSAT) is written in a cross between printing and cursive, not pure cursive. But it can be read — and the lines are straight.

The handwriting of your average college student has stopped developing at around the sixth grade level, and while Narey’s theory definitely speaks to the future I’m not sure it speaks to the present. Technology in secondary school classrooms is a relatively recent development, and it isn’t uniform. So what are the possible explanations of the poor handwriting that has characterized college students for the past decade or so?

I want to hear more about this in the comments section, but I will posit two explanations.

1. One is that secondary school students are not expected to have any tolerance for learning that isn’t tricked out with bells and whistles to keep them fascinated at all times. Practicing your handwriting is dull: put it in the same category as diagramming sentences, something that is also no longer taught, so that even students at highly selective colleges have to learn the basic elements of sentence structure at the same time that they are supposed to be learning critical thinking skills and advanced subject matter.

2. A second explanation is that, despite the increased emphasis on English composition in high stakes testing, the vast majority of standardized tests (from the second grade on in most states) are multiple choice.  Teaching students how to take these tests effectively, and making sure they have access to the content they need to do well, is a far higher priority than teaching the basic skills that present a young person as a mature human being. One of those skills would be handwriting an answer to a question.

Whatever the reasons behind the collapse of handwriting, college students no longer think it is their responsibility to write legibly. Give a regular blue book exam and a dozen  students or so will warn you that their “handwriting is terrible” as if that is something for which the professor now has to take responsibility.

Readers: should handwriting be taught? And if students can’t do it, should there be remedial handwriting classes in college?

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