Monday, April 7, 2008

The Importance of Longhand

An article I read in Good Magazine, by English teacher Anne Trubek, is her argument to stop the teaching of handwriting to kids in schools, due to it being an old medium that has been replaced and will continue to be replaced by new technologies as time passes. Besides being shocked that a person in her profession would advocate such a thing (she as a journalist only handwrites to sign checks), I think that this narrow-minded approach promotes ignorance amongst children/future adults.

She writes of how her son, who is in the third grade, struggles to write certain letters and has had several interventions after just as many teacher complaints. He is now at the point where he's afraid to pick up a pen or pencil because he "can't write". I'm sure this could be a motor skill issue, as she says, but it still isn't anything that can't be solved with practice. Not everyone's handwriting is going to be florid and graceful. Additionally, his teachers' administration methods should be addressed, as the focus should be on whether his writing is legible, not beautiful or perfect.

She says that this scholastic move would be hard for people to grasp because of the romanticized connections we have to handwriting. Accordingly, the religious monastic orders of centuries ago apprehensively began using the printing press instead of the scriptorium to print their doctrines and writings into books, and it was shortly after this that people began to romanticize handwriting as an old-fashioned way to express themselves. This is a historical example of how the writing medium began to be replaced by newer, temporally-economic ones. But this is the narrow-mindedness I spoke of earlier. The printing press was 1) a publishing tool, not one built for expression and, 2) if considered a way to express, it is in addition to handwriting, not something to replace it.

A quote she used from novelist Richard Powers says: "Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. ...For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right,".

Handwriting may have a sort of charm in being considered the more artistic or ancient medium, but that isn't it's only charm. Most writers do not choose their mediums necessarily expecting it to be perfectly clean or invisible enough to get the passage right, but they do stick with the ones that come the closest. People use what is the more natural medium; the one that's most comfortable.

The article speaks of Henry James, who dictated his novels to his personal secretary in the 1880's, as well as the above-quoted Powers, who uses voice-recognition software to speak his novels into type. This is all fine and well, but it doesn't speak for J.K. Rowling, who started Harry Potter's fictional life in longhand on napkins in a cafe. Neither does it cover George Lucas, who handwrote Star Wars. I didn't specify which Star Wars film because he handwrote all of them. Not just beginning main ideas, but full-fledged scripts including character and location bios, as well as research, notes and script changes on the set of his films.

So what then if we do stop teaching children how to handwrite? Does Trubek suppose we install computers in classrooms nationwide? Typewriters? Does she suppose they takes notes by constantly chatting into recorders all day? Yes, let's dig the American deficit deeper by supporting these notions, especially in areas where the latest, if any, writing technologies cannot be afforded. Her son may not have to use handwriting to get his ideas out, but it can only help him to know that that medium exists.


  1. Don't Feed The PixiesApril 9, 2008 at 7:55 AM

    Another very interesting thought.

    A few years ago I would have laughed at anyone who said that we would listen to music that was purely downloaded from the internet. My basic instinct is that humans are a tactile race - we like to touch and feel things, to interact with them.

    Whilst i was wrong about the downloads i still believe that it's important that we keep that tactile relation with the world. I recently sent a letter to a relative and they reacted with surprise because it was such an old-fashioned thing to receive.

    My hand-writing was often criticised at school, and still can't keep up with my thoughts without dissolving into unreadable scribble - but in a world where we are swiftly exhausting the Earth's reserves it does not make sense to suggest that we become even more desensitised and rely entirely on the machine.

  2. I am a middle school teacher and my students were never taught handwriting. They are very upset about this. They feel they were cheated out of getting to do something beautifully. They like to take pride in their work and they can't do that if they know it could be better. I've recommended to the school that they need to reinstate handwriting in the curriculum.


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