When the Aughts commenced, the demise of handwriting had already begun. Nonetheless, schoolchildren still handwrote most of their papers, typing was unheard of during college lectures (let alone exams), and emailing thank you notes was generally deemed rude. Now, nearly every student in all of my law school classes types their notes and emailing thank you notes is generally an acceptable practice. Think of the last time that you handwrote more than a paragraph—I actually cannot recall the last time I handwrote so much: It quite possibly was over a year ago, when the end of the Aughts seemed as if it were in the distant future.
For sloppy handwriters like John S and I,* this is a boon. Those “N”s** that mired the penmanship section of my elementary school report card have become completely irrelevant. Young children need not be patronizingly told that they ought to become doctors by adults that, frankly, have no sense of their medical knowledge. For those like Tim and presumably Pierre (whom I suspect is a masterful calligrapher) who pen beautiful characters, handwriting’s demise presents an unfortunate situation.
*While we are both sloppy, a blind test confirmed that John S has worse handwriting.
But, the purpose of this post is not to examine the individual fortunes of John S, Tim, Pierre, and I, but rather to analyze the objective implications of handwriting’s demise.
The effect of the demise of handwriting on the education process is, I think, awesome for multiple reasons:
First, time not spent on handwriting (and cursive*) can be spent on other more important subjects like math and reading. Sure, some of that time should probably be spent on typing, but for children with poor fine-motor skills (particularly boys, who develop their fine-motor skills later than girls), typing should be an easier chore, taking up less time, than repeatedly penning characters.
*I was always told that cursive was going to matter a TON at some point. Elementary school teachers said it would be HUGE in middle school. Middle school teachers said everyone in “the real world” uses cursive. None of this was true. I’m glad I can pen a signature though.
Second, “the handwriting effect” can be minimized. As Education Professor Steve Graham summarizes his studies on penmanship, “When teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper than the same versions with poorer penmanship.” In kindergarten, I felt dumb for not being able to write letters inside the lines while the (clearly intellectually inferior) girl next to me pompously smirked after writing all of her letters with aplomb. There’s nothing wrong with differentiation, even at young ages. But, when differentiation in one field (fine-motor skills) is conflated with differentiation in another field (intellect)—which is basically a cognitive certainty given the handwriting effect—that is problematic and could be demoralizing for intelligent children.
Third, more can be taught and written. We type faster than we write, in some cases a LOT faster. When handwriting essays, people can easily think of more to write than they had time to write. Typing helps to lessen this gap. Taking notes is also easier since they can be reorganized after class, which is especially important since most teachers are not good lecturers.
Fourth, it promotes sound analysis. When going back and reviewing a handwritten paper, you cannot easily insert new phrases or paragraphs in the middle of your paper. Moreover, generally, there are far more words on a typewritten page than a handwritten page. The result is that it is easier to both follow and edit typewritten papers. You need not flip through pages or use wite-out* to make your analysis coherent: The transaction costs of editing are so high when handwriting that editing was chilled, meaning a suboptimal amount of editing occurred.
*Man, was there any subject more divisive among teachers than wite-out?
While I framed this in terms of education, almost all of these benefits hold for typing in other domains too. The opportunity cost of handwriting is simply more than the opportunity cost of typing. Because the relative cost of typing is lower, people may actually type more than they would otherwise handwrite. The result? More analysis and more knowledge. Imagine if bloggers, like us, had to handwrite all of our entries. Surely we would have fewer entries.
Are there trade-offs? Sure, there are trade-offs. For one, handwriting does reflect a sense of intimacy and personality that is not conveyed in a font that millions of other people use as well. (Response to this argument: By not being able to rely on the charm of handwriting, people are forced to express intimacy and personality through their words, a more valuable form of intimacy.) Additionally, some people do have naturally beautiful handwriting, which has inherent aesthetic value. Not only will we not see that beautiful handwriting as often, but it will exist less since it doesn’t make sense to “invest” in and develop beautiful handwriting when the vast majority of your written work will be done through typing.
Let me be clear: Handwriting has probably reached a plateau. I’m dubious that it will completely disappear, even in the next decade. There will be certain things we will still need handwriting for, at least for a little while: endorsing checks, filling out documents at the doctor, post-it note-taking, etc. But, its value and the value of having good handwriting will inevitably continue to decline. And, while there are trade-offs, I think that’s a good thing.
Tim will follow with Part II of the Symposium tomorrow.