Handwriting Symposium Part II: In Defense of Handwriting

Josh’s opening salvo in the symposium, explaining why the demise of handwriting is “awesome,” can be found here. And I apologize for the “Tim” not coming out too well up top; I’m not used to signing just my first name.

I think I should be clear on my position from the start: I am not a technophobe. I have two iPods and a Blackberry. I own and frequently use a laptop. I do a lot of typing. I typed this whole post. I do not advocate that college students be required to handwrite their theses or even simple 5-7 page papers. I do not think we should spend hours each day in the classroom learning proper Palmer technique or calligraphy so as to make our penmanship more artistic or romantic. I’m even on board with the printing press, which I think is a pretty neat invention.

I want to make a very simple point: Josh, the demise of handwriting is not “awesome.” It is not awesome because handwriting is intimately tied to learning proper composition* in young children, and it is a personal means of communication that cannot be duplicated through the medium of a computer.

*Composition here meaning the ability to structure an argument or a story—more likely a story for this age group.

Josh’s basic idea is that the “demise of handwriting”—signaled by the rise of typed school assignments and by extension the decreased amount of time spent teaching penmanship in schools—is a good thing. He’s correct in pointing out the movement: A 2007 survey found that primary-school teachers spent roughly 70 minutes per week on handwriting instruction, or 14 minutes per day. His analysis of the objective consequences, however, leaves a little bit to be desired.

To me, Josh’s main mistake is that he applies college logic to a primary-school issue. He asserts that “time not spent on handwriting (and cursive) can be spent on other more important subjects like math and reading” and that “typing should be an easier chore, taking up less time, than repeatedly penning characters.” I disagree entirely with the idea that learning how to type is easier for a kindergarten to third-grader than learning how to write. This is not how it worked out in my experience or the experience of several of my classmates. Typing, in fact, was so hard for middle-school Tim that he abandoned the idea of proper typing entirely and now uses his two index fingers with great success. Furthermore, typing also requires certain fine-motor skills (and ones not already being honed by other childhood activities like doodling and ones not quite as tied to other important things like hand-eye coordination), and there will be students—probably many of them—who cannot type as fast as they think or fall behind the class and get easily discouraged. And it’s not as if you can ignore those motor skills forever.

Additionally, we do type faster than we write, when we get older. At a young age (the age at which most kids are still handwriting over typing), however, the speed at which we write is roughly equivalent to the speed at which we think. Handwriting at that age doesn’t require kids to “hold on to” information in their head while they catch up in writing. The gap between writing and thinking only emerges later, by which point we’re typing.

Finally, I don’t want to get into the whole editing debate, but your idea that typing papers promotes sounder analysis is dubious at best. How often have you started just typing out ideas for a paper, whereas if you had to write it, you would create a detailed and comprehensive outline before starting your paper and then use a set draft system for revisions? I’m not saying the latter is definitely better; I just don’t think it’s definitely worse.*

*I did enjoy your idea that typing makes for easier editing because you can fit more words on a page and “you need not flip through pages.” Was this a problem when you edited your handwritten stuff as a kid? Too many pages to flip through? Does this make single-spaced papers easier to edit than double-spaced ones? Eight-point font better than 12?

So if I understand Josh’s whole argument correctly, he wants schools to limit to a greater extent the time they spend teaching handwriting. And so maybe they can spend five minutes on handwriting, five minutes on typing, and an additional four minutes on math. Of course, they’ll need the extra time in math because kids will struggle more in the subject without having the basics of handwriting down.* I personally do not see how one can expect kids to successfully learn penmanship—or even feel motivated to—if they spend even less time on it in the future than they do now. And in that scenario, schools would ignore the significance learning how to physically write by hand has in assisting students in learning how to write (as in compose). Learning how to write at a young age permits children to express themselves beyond speech: They can write stories to go along with the pictures they draw to help articulate meaning. The easy accessibility of writing–all it takes is a pencil and paper–encourages kids to express themselves in this more coherent fashion. This is to say nothing of handwriting’s established ties to proper spelling. I think Josh has seen some developments he likes (and I do, too, such as the elimination of the insidious Handwriting Effect), but he doesn’t foresee the damaging ramifications of further limiting handwriting instruction—ramifications that include stinted communication, composition, and language skills.

*Try telling an engineer or chemist or non-Humanities major to just type their notes in class.

And now for the more personal, less research-backed argument: Handwriting is a form of communication more intimate than anything but speech. It is a manner of expression that doesn’t require the medium of a computer.* Our penmanship can reveal things about our inner state of mind and about our personal development. I can look at virtually anything I have handwritten and know, from my penmanship, when I wrote it. While cursive may not have been important to Josh, it has proven paramount to me. I could never have taken thorough notes throughout my educational career without it, and I frequently found that writing down information helped me commit it to memory and retain it later in a way typing it never did—another characteristic I have in common with several friends.  Furthermore, I certainly wouldn’t be able to write as fast as people speak during my journalistic endeavors in manuscript (or “print,” as it’s colloquially known).

*It does require the medium of a pencil/pen/crayon/etc., but these media become easily controllable extensions of the body in ways the computer never does.

I handwrite on a daily basis, and it appalls me that Josh hasn’t handwritten more than a paragraph in weeks, let alone months or year(s). I handwrote an outline to this very response, plus that little bit at the top. I would have handwritten the whole thing if not for the hyperlinks. It is true, as Josh says, that the best way to make our writing stand out is through a strong voice and our words; but why not occasionally infuse our prose with the added individuality of handwritten style? A restaurant is defined by its food, but its presentation doesn’t hurt.

There’s a callus on my right ring finger (‘tis true, I don’t hold a pen properly) that has diminished in size these last few months but that I doubt will ever go away. I hope it never does, just as I hope (against the odds and popular opinion, it seems) that America’s schoolchildren develop their own calluses for decades to come.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. [...] Posted by Josh in Symposium, language. Tagged: accessibility, doodling, handwriting, netbooks, penmanship, smartphones, the demise of handwriting, trade-offs, video games. Leave a Comment I acknowledged that there were trade-offs with less emphasis on handwriting. And, perhaps the most significant is the reduction in the supply of beautiful penmanship such as that exhibited by Tim. [...]

    Reply

  2. Posted by doc on January 10, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    As a doctor, I love conforming to the notion that our writing is illegible. I have the fastest signature in the west. Usually, when I have to sign a credit card receipt, I proudly hand it back to the retailer before he has a chance to tell me to sign it. I do think there that writing by hand can slow down one’s thoughts (which can be a good thing) as well as reveal them. It’s kind of cool to the see the original handwriting and thought process of a Jimi Hendrix:

    I guess someone like Josh could save a Word doc and engage the option “track changes”, but it does lose a little something!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Dan on January 14, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    Tim, you do have a point … using a computer can allow one to sidestep learning to spell. (A scill I never quite acquired due to early use of a computer).*

    *and perhaps looking over at Josh’s paper during 8th grade.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Kathy BURG on June 26, 2010 at 1:58 AM

    I’ve always found that the people that moan about learning handwriting being a waste of time and of little value also have some of the worst chicken scrawls i’ve ever seen. Personally i agree with the great man that said “Bad handwriting is a sign of imperfect education.”

    Reply

  5. [...] it brought back some memories of Josh and Tim’s Symposium on Handwriting (starting with Josh, on to Tim, back to Josh). One feature on the Livescribe smart pen seemed to suggest handwriting might not be [...]

    Reply

  6. [...] it really so long ago that Josh and Tim debated handwriting? Consider Katie Zezima’s piece in the NY Times the next [...]

    Reply

  7. [...] Hartman wrote a handwritten (which Tim likes and Josh doesn’t) letter to an aspiring [...]

    Reply

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