70. Upholding Handwriting

I am writing this blog because I feel that the single most artistic activity of human beings that is being threatened is the art of writing. Cursive writing is under attack. I treasure handwriting, but the way we are headed, future generations may not be able to read cursive texts nor even sign their names! In this respect I think that digitalization is whittling away our humanity on a grand scale. We must confront this.

You may object that today’s youths won’t miss anything when they no longer write with pen or pencil — but that is also because all too many of us take the act of writing for granted. Many see it only as a means of communication — like a telegram (also on its way out). Just as a voice on the telephone tells you a lot about the personality and character of the caller, handwriting conveys even more about the state of mind of the writer. The digital message is close to being anonymous. The ABC of electronic letters does not reveal anything about the sender (perhaps to the regret of the Secret Service!)

So what is happening? Teaching handwriting in primary schools is on its way out. In the United States and other countries, like Finland, technology is replacing writing just as it is seriously affecting so many important human activities ranging from memory to contact with the natural world. Today’s teenagers are far more comfortable texting on their mobiles, touch-typing on iPads or tapping on laptop keys than holding a pencil or pen in their hands. For many students, cursive is becoming difficult to read. For teachers, however, computer word processed papers are easier to read and to correct. Even more important, teachers feel the digital advances provide them with extra time to spend on other common core standards.

Prof. Richard S. Christen, an expert in education at the University of Portland in Oregon, told The New York Times that cursive writing could easily be replaced with printed handwriting or word processing, but he was concerned that students will lose an artistic skill. “These kids are losing [class]time where they created beauty every day,” he said. “I’m mourning the beauty, the aesthetics.”1 The splendor of Chinese and Japanese brush strokes, the vitality of Arab calligraphy, and the glory of medieval manuscripts are part of the history of writing which has so enriched civilizations.

The everyday process of writing, over the past two millennia, had become integral to our cultural evolution. The ability to write was something that could affect the future of a child’s life. Writing also was a companion to the arts. The way children progressed in their writing influenced their lives in a fundamental way. I shall try to explain this at some length because I regard it as crucial to our understanding of the process of writing itself.

For children the slow progress of communication starts only a little after babbling. Klara Roman in her exceptional book, Handwriting: A key to Personality, wrote that it all begins with the pleasure children have in scribbling, that is, taking a pencil and marking up sheets of paper rather haphazardly. “This random movement has been compared to the graphic equivalent of babbling. It is free, spontaneous motor play — of movement for its own sake.”2 After a while, maybe some days or months, such random movement becomes sequential. Each child develops its own individual approach: one may push the pencil in an angular way producing zigzags, another produces circling whorls. The energy they exert varies greatly: some hold the pencil lightly, others cover the paper with diffused weak strokes, while a few make forceful sweeping marks. Usually a pattern develops which will be repeated over and over. This is the child’s own imprint and achievement and fills it with delight. It not only empowers, it also is a basic way of self-expression which involves mastering one of the first tools.

With a relatively stable pattern of scribbling a child can express its different moods: Sadness will reduce the size of the more downward strokes. Cheerfulness will expand the line patterns, while anxiety will constrict them. Child psychologists point out that feelings of aggression are displayed in increased angularity while rage results in outbursts of vehement strokes. The scribbling stage does not last long, but presents a visible record of the infant’s self-expression before and independently of teaching. Repetition of its pattern-making gives a pleasurable feeling, in part because it bestows the comfort of familiarity. Its individual execution makes it easily identifiable from that of other children. Scribbling is an expression of fundamental personality traits. At about the age of four scribbling is usually abandoned in favor of drawing, and after that comes writing.

The first efforts to push a pencil over paper in order to copy a letter of the alphabet are hampered by cramped movement of the hand. Learning penmanship is often an ordeal as well as an embarrassment to the five year old. Free expression must come to an end when the child learns to write under school instruction which enforces the imitation of copybook letters. Only gradually will the child acquire sufficient eye to hand control to copy each letter accurately in what is called print script — that is, with little or no connection between the letters. Only later will children be coached in the transition to cursive writing. Their handwriting will develop steadily throughout the primary school years. Generally children will progress to write in a firm and controlled manner. Their familiarity with reading, writing and speaking will become fully integrated in their minds.

When children enter first grade they usually have acquired a basic understanding of language in a haphazard fashion. Reading and writing will then demand a more formal and systematic approach. The first grader will read aloud printed words in a monotone way without understanding their meaning. Similarly in copying words, they will trace letters without comprehending the sense of the word. Eventually, seeing, hearing and writing the word simultaneously will represent the essential leap forward. It used to be a kind of a rite of passage to be able to write like grown-ups. There was pride in the dexterity, the fluidity and the exactness which are essential when putting pen and pencil on paper. Now the manual script skills of the past are fast disappearing. An art form is being de-activated.

I am only an amateur graphologist, but to this day I greatly admire the handwriting of my parents. The way my father (a famous photographer) brandished his pen reveals his virtuosity, his vitality, humor, strength of character, intuition, insight, charm, self-confidence and- above all — his artistry. However, his writing has none of the commitment, steadiness, understanding, compassion and humanity of my mother’s handwriting which, for all its merits, lacks both an artistic bent or ambition. Today their letters, written decades ago, reveal so much of who they were. Admittedly, today’s videos also can present astonishing aspects of those pictured for future generations, but they lack the extraordinary depths provided by handwriting.

As it is, people no longer keep diaries, and letters from our friends are becoming rarities. The lack of such writings will seriously affect the historical research of tomorrow.

I find it highly discouraging that when the fate of writing is being discussed by law-makers in Washington, references are usually made that unless they are taught script, students will no longer be able to read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence which were originally written in copperplate script.3 Politicians seem to have blinkers on. Scribbling will continue, just as the babbling of infants will not stop, but script writing may soon come to an end. The problem facing us is a much larger one which those pushing the advances of technology should not be left to resolve. Nor should teachers and their unions be forced to decide.

I believe that teenagers who create handwritten paragraphs are engaged in a process which enhances their conceptual understanding as well as their memory. Hitting a button with one’s fingers is a markedly different exercise from carefully shaping letters into words. Critics admit that pen and pencil may help develop motor skills but that children can record their thoughts at a much faster pace by tapping their fingers. Speed in writing, like speed in everything else in our modern lives has become a determining factor… but there will be a price to pay in having machines gradually bulldozing our humanity.

1Katie Zezima, “The Case for Cursive,” The New York Times, April 27, 2011.
2Klara G.Roman, “Handwriting: A Key to Personality,” (1952) p. 21
3Libby Nelson, “Cursive handwriting is useless, but politicians want students to learn it anyway,libby@vox.com, February 1, 2015, 4:00pm

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