Handwriting

Is it becoming obsolete?

I have no nostalgia for it, myself. I’ve always considered dragging a writing implement across paper to be sheer physical drudgery, and if I didn’t have a keyboard, I wouldn’t be a writer.

This is the key point:

Although these historical tidbits are fascinating—the chapter on the absurdly indecipherable script prevalent in Germany before Hitler banned it helps demonstrate how arbitrary and cultural our writing conventions are—they have one point in common. Every innovation in handwriting was designed to improve the speed and legibility of human communication. And here is where Hensher’s quixotic defense of the hand stumbles. For what is faster and clearer than typing? Weren’t you slightly relieved when the handwritten paragraphs in this review came to an end, leaving you on the sturdy shores of a new thought expressed in Microsoft Verdana? Isn’t it easier to catch my meaning, to pay attention, when you are staring at a nice clean block of type?

My emphasis. The other issue that she doesn’t really get into is that by “handwriting,” what is really being discussed here is cursive script, which I learned as a child, but abandoned for just printing around junior high, because I found it too time consuming. I never bought, and still don’t buy, the notion that by eliminating the need to lift the pen, it somehow sped up the process. Both my printing and my cursive are illegible to anyone but me, but printing goes faster, because I don’t have to spend time worrying about the loops and flourishes. I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but when I took my GRE, it said that I had to write (not print) a pledge on the cover. It had been so long since I’d written cursive that it took me a couple minutes to slowly remember how to form the letters in the single sentence required.

I do think that being able to write down thoughts, old school, traditional tech, will always be a valuable skill (well, barring the Singularity). But there’s no reason for most kids to learn cursive these days. That could just be a hobby or art, like calligraphy. Typing is a much more important skill.

24 thoughts on “Handwriting

  1. Tom Hill

    I heard a radio program discussing this issue, and much to my surprise the curator of a writing museum said something like “I want there to be as little barriers as possible standing between an idea and the page.” Typing FTW!

  2. Bill Dale

    /snark
    Likewise who needs to know arithmetic? Add,subtract, multiply and divide. Who does that anymore in your head. Jeesh !!! Why learn your multiplication tables?

    Everyone has calculators and commuters. Writing it all out by hand – why bother.
    /snark

    Hey! The only thing you have is what you keep in your head. They cannot take that away from you. Unless they kill you. The ability to write by hand, with understandable script, to do good math in your head and the think critically are essential to a good education. They are basic.

  3. Daver

    My sister’s kids’ (13+) handwriting looks like kindergarten scrawl–big, malformed, hard to read. Their spelling and grammar is worse. So far as I know, they can’t type any faster than they can write. I think I’ll blame the schools. Anyway, maybe there’s something to be said for drilling in handwriting (not necessarily cursive) in the grade schools.

    I stopped cursive about the same time I started typing; once I stopped writing for other people I adopted my own conventions for how to write letters. Some of them started to resemble cursive letters, which was kind of interesting. I could see how some of the cursive shapes came about.

    1. Larry J

      Some skills are important but others become obsolete. I still have my high school student slide rule and know how to use it. It’s more a conversation piece than practical instrument, though.

      The ability to do math – at least to make accurate estimates – is important. The ability to write legibly by hand is also important, but the style of the writing is less so. My cursive writing skills, such as they ever were, are in sad shape. I can print much more quickly and legibly when necessary. As it is, I can barely read my own signature any more and my hands start hurting within a few minutes if I write by hand.

  4. Ed in Elmhurst

    Rand,
    I found this topic and your comments very interesting. I myself followed your trajectory in segueing from cursive to printing (w/o much consistency in my “fonts” – which varied all over the place, even within the same document!) tho’ I still wrote college term papers, essay-type answers on exams, etc. in cursive, only giving it up after graduation. In retrospect, I really feel for my poor teachers who had to read through and grade such opuses. Now, the only place I use cursive is in signing checks, legal documents and so on. To this day (at age 80+) I have not mastered “touch typing” – instead I use the Columbus System – “pick out a key and land on it!”

    One thing I have noticed but have never seen anyone comment on it: whether I write/print large (as on a chalkboard) or very small (as in trying to cram a lengthy note on a small piece of paper), my writing/printing at whatever scale looks the same, even though I surely use different arm/hand/finger muscles in the various instances – curious, no? It would appear that one’s style is embedded in the nervous system rather than the musculo-skeletal one.

  5. Der Schtumpy

    There is another important item here on the HANDwriting front.

    Some of us, regardless of the number of hours of mandated ‘practice’ in cursive or even our original block lettering, just do not have the skill to make it very legible. And trust me when I say that this was QUITE an issue for a Parochial School boy who had two lay teachers in 8 years of schooling. The Sisters were rabid fans of good penmanship! But I could no more ‘practice’ my way into legibility than I could into running a 4 minute mile or learning to do brain surgery.

    There was no such thing as typing a report later when I went to public JRHS or HS either. Reports were required to be handwritten, I’ve since learned that requirement may have been just the wishes of the teachers I had in the schools where I attended. My wife, whom I’ve known since she was my 8th grade crush, had teachers that allowed typed reports. I didn’t learn that until years later as a matter of fact.

    I can tell you, I took plenty of hits for ‘legibility’, even when my work would have gotten an “A” otherwise.

    Now many, many, many years later, I have arthritis in my hands and my writing is so much worse that old notes I run across from time to time, now LOOK like calligraphy in comparison! Sometimes, after a week or so, even I can’t tell what I wrote. And although I’ve never been a fast typist on a keyboard, but at least it’s legible.
    .
    .
    .
    Bill Dale / Dr Frink,
    my oldest grandson has a learning disability in that he has memory trouble. We drilled on multiplication tables and by the time we got along to 6, 7, 8 tables, he’d ‘lost’ his 1, 2, 3’s. I discovered this while I helped home school him for 5th grade, the teachers never caught his problem.

    After he went back to public school, I learned that he had a calculator, and a sheet on his desk with the multiplication tables. I ass-u-med that he got that, after hearing him talk about them, because of his disability. Only much later did I learn that ALL the kids had them.

    So in some instances, evidently, your snark is become fact. FLAVIN!

  6. Mike James

    “For what is faster and clearer than typing?”

    Handwriting, when the power goes out.

    Cursive is much more comfortable than printing. Faster, for me, but it takes all kinds. I hated the way they taught it in school. I looked at it as deliberate sadism, all that repetition. I will say, if I have to communicate instructions to someone else, notes left on a door, directions, that sort of thing, I print the message for the sake of clarity.

    I suppose that it’s fair to refer to cursive handwriting as obsolete, and that probably has to do with the invention of the ball point pen. Classical ink pens, with nibs, didn’t really lend themselves to forming block letters–the only way to write smoothly with them, without making a mess, was to use a cursive script. One mark of a gentleman’s education was how elegant his script was–pencils were for the lower classes.

    The Rise of the Keyboards may or may not have brought about better writing, but it sure did give us Textspeak–teaching the kids to type might be a mixed blessing. Perhaps a hidden benefit of teaching handwriting is the development of patience and maturity in little children, alongside the fine motor skills.

    1. Daver

      I learned to type on a manual. I’ve written a few letters in the dark on it; something I wouldn’t be able to do with pen and paper. I no longer have a manual typewriter; I assume they’re ridiculously expensive.

  7. McGehee

    The only cursive writing I do anymore is my own signature, and I believe it was in a comment here years ago that I confessed I’d be doomed if I ever had to go into witness protection because I’d never be able to learn a new signature.

    I switched to print handwriting in high school; I’m pretty sure my non-cursive longhand is legible to anyone. But I started favoring the keyboard even for personal letters the first time I owned an elctronic typewriter — back in the days when a “word processor” was hardware rather than software.

  8. Bill Dale

    No one has mentioned the Kipling poem “God’s of the Copybook Headings” that Bill Whittle did recently. The rote memorization of sayings and aphorisms is gone by eliminating handwriting exercises. Depending on the school and its purpose in indoctrination of the youth this may be a good thing.

    Or not.

    1. Der Schtumpy

      But Bill, isn’t some of the knowledge of sayings and aphorisms just Cultural Literacy? Things we used to pick up just living in this country, such as.

      A bird in the hand…

      Red sky at morning…

      even, how much wood, could a woodchuck chuck…

      I know these things and it’s not from writing them anywhere. And I certainly went to school a llllooong time ago, when rote memorization was common. I don’t remember practicing anything like that. I do think in typing that there were some that we learned.

      The quick brown fox, jumped…

      Now is the time….

      But let me say that even a little over 20 years ago when our eldest was in HS, he did not know those practice phrases when he was learning keyboarding. As I recall, they used to just pick a page out of a book and type it.

  9. T.L. James

    Gave up cursive in sixth grade when the teacher no longer required it – don’t think I could even do it now, no idea what cursive is supposed to look like anymore.

    My mixed-case printing in college quickly adopted the cursive and short-cut elements Daver mentioned. When I went back for my engineering degree, however, drafting class turned it into a mixture of large and small upper-case which is at times is a thing of graphical beauty.

    Pity that I was in the last class to take mechanical drafting at Michigan Tech. There’s a skill with enduring value, even if you make drawings on a CAD system – I boggled a few minds early in my career by being able to do projections in hand-sketches. And using PowerPoint freeforms.

    1. Daver

      My dad said that he had horrid handwriting until he took mechanical drawing in college. That stayed with him.

      I kind of wish I had taken a watered down course in college–not for the printing, but so that my drawings wouldn’t be as write-only as my writing.

      1. Daver

        Oops, I need to pay more attention to what I’m typing. I meant the watered-down course in high school. The college courses were mind-numbing, at least the ones my sister took.

  10. DaveP.

    In the elementary and middle schools in the district down the road from me, they’ve taken spelling and grammar almost completely out of the syllabus- “everybody has spellcheck”. They’ve ‘de-emphasized’ basic math- “everybody has a calculator”. They’ve eliminated cursive- “everybody types”. Shop and vocational classes shrink every year- “NCLB doesn’t test for Shop”.
    So what are these kids going to do, when they’ve graduated and found out that they’re totally unprepared for college entry and totally unprepared to be competitive in the jobs market at anything over broom-pusher level?
    And the cascade rolls on: VDH had a post up a while ago about how he had to dumb down his syllabus because the kids coming into his classes simply weren’t prepared to cope with a real collegiate course. He’s not alone, as colleges everywhere try to deal with the fact that the vast majority of the graduating seniors lack sufficient math, history, and English to survive as freshmen.
    We’re moving towards a two-level educational system: the children of those who can afford it will go to private schools and eventually run things; everyone else will go to public schools to get a good dose of indoctrination and no real skills that would make them producers instead of (politically-reliable) parasites.

    1. Larry J

      Ah, yes. Spell checkers.

      Candidate for a Pullet Surprise
      by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar

      I have a spelling checker,
      It came with my PC.
      It plane lee marks four my revue
      Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

      Eye ran this poem threw it,
      Your sure reel glad two no.
      Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
      My checker tolled me sew.

      A checker is a bless sing,
      It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
      It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
      And aides me when eye rime.

      Each frays come posed up on my screen
      Eye trussed too bee a joule.
      The checker pours o’er every word
      To cheque sum spelling rule.

      Bee fore a veiling checker’s
      Hour spelling mite decline,
      And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
      We wood bee maid too wine.

      Butt now bee cause my spelling
      Is checked with such grate flare,
      Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
      Of nun eye am a wear.

      Now spelling does knot phase me,
      It does knot bring a tier.
      My pay purrs awl due glad den
      With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

      To rite with care is quite a feet
      Of witch won should bee proud,
      And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
      Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

      Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
      Such soft wear four pea seas,
      And why eye brake in two averse
      Buy righting want too pleas.

  11. Joe Wooten

    I noticed several of the new scouts coming into the troop several years ago had trouble learning to tie the basic knots. Their fingers were very clumsy. They also had trouble using tools for fine work, like whittling.

    A few weeks later we were having all the boys sign a card to thank a donor, and I noticed that all the clumsy ones printed their names, in large block letters like a first grader would. I asked them if they did not know how to sign their names in cursive, and none did. Later on I quizzed one of the boy’s mother, who was a 2nd grade teacher in the local government school about this. She told me teaching cursive was taken off the curriculum 2 years earlier.

    I did some further research and noticed that almost every kid since the change had fine motor skill problems. The only ones who did not were those whose parents taught them cursive, or the now rare kid who got into model building. I then thought about the hours of cursive writing drills in 3rd and 4th grades and how a kid learns to gain fine motor skills in his fingers that pays dividends for other skills later on.

    I think stopping this is a BIG mistake.

  12. Brock

    Plato had the following to say about writing (presumably in cursive):

    If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

    Obviously he was wrong. The ability to commit ideas to paper and transmit them to several generations was a Very Good Thing for human civilization.

    The ability to quickly and legibly communicate ideas via computer will also be a Very Good Thing over the long term.

    None of this means we can simply give up on learning certain basic things like multiplication tables, but it’s hardly like by learning to type means we give up on learning everything else. Straw man, much? What stupidity.

    Each new technology causes the same old cranks to come out of the wood work and to assume that simply because the new generation is learning in a different way, well then is must be worse and civilizational collapse is imminent.

    1. Daver

      So far I think you’re the only one who has brought up anything about learning to type meaning giving up on learning everything else. Joe Wooten pointed out a possible correlation between lack of drill in cursive and lack of fine motor skills. Dave P pointed out the general dumbing down of everything education-wise, but typing wasn’t the cause, merely a symptom.

  13. JJS

    I think Plato had a point that you may be missing. In his day lessons learned were committed to memory, making it more difficult to ignore when a mistake was about to be repeated. We have the arrogance to believe that since we write everything down nothing is lost, however we often repeat our own mistakes even when the lesson learned have been repeatedly committed to paper.
    I am curious as to what will become of the signature? Will everyone adopt their own “Mark” like Prince.

  14. David A. Young

    I’ve aways found I could write faster and more legibly in cursive, so obviously that varies from person to person. I find the idea that cursive helps to develop fine motor skills at least reasonable — I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study along those lines?

    But far worse than losing the skill to write cursively is losing the skill to write gramatically…which seems to be ever more wide spread.

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