Handwriting’s premature demise

Computers have not killed handwriting (yet)

By James Robinson

There is a generational split you may have noticed. And it doesn’t lead itself to labeling as easily as the Generation X/Generation Y divide. The divide falls between those who were in school when computers started to take hold, and these new, younger, digital natives. This divide is the sort of abyss that leads a 26 year old to feel alien staring out a bus full of text messaging school children without a hint of melodrama.

Digital makes all else quaint. It does by hand what was once done by machine.

79 percent of 15 year-olds have a cell phone. Roughly 30 percent of 10 year-olds have a cell phone. It is a sharp dividing line. Computer use is equally as rife. In the industrialised world 59 percent of all children have direct access to a home computer with internet. It is a sharp contrast to the schoolyard that most people over the age of twenty-five lived through.

And it is these sorts of statistics that are driving people to muse that the art of handwriting is dead (Slate, Time, BBC, The Guardian amongst many other reputable publications have all weighed in on this matter), with the amorphous idea of “the kids” at the centre of this debate. Too keyed up in iPhones and IMing to appreciate the simple art of pen of paper.

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Heading to the battle lines of our education system, there are many pieces of information immediately evident that those long finished with school might not have considered. And notably, the idea of the death of handwriting generates a slight shrug of the shoulders among teachers.

Handwriting is not emphasised at all past primary and intermediate level education. Across the board girls are neater than boys, priding presentation long past the point when it brings them direct reward. Converse to expectation, at the average school students have very little face time with computers. Internet policy is too hard to police, and printing costs are prohibitive. While some private secondary schools are apparently placing laptops in front of their kids, this is far from the norm.

The one prerequisite is legibility. Students need to be able to be understood. Damagingly, some teachers reported that electronic communication has weakened grammar and spelling. While it has opened new doors in learning potential for students with dyslexia, it has created new hurdles for the perfectly capable. Going off-road and on to the pen and pad, easy mistakes start to creep in.

Subsequently, it becomes a teacher’s choice whether assignments need to be handwritten or typed. Some choose handwriting – citing fostering a sense of accuracy, and preparing a student for exams. This could be a source of imaginable complaint for a young-student forced to work by hand with a taunting computer near by. But in the words of one teacher, “students will complain about doing anything that requires effort, and thought”.

Many students don’t have great handwriting, and while computers may undercut an encyclopedic knowledge of language when a spell-check isn’t handy, handwriting can also undermine a student’s performance in an exam. Tony, a retired headmaster, with nearly 30 years experience in schools says: “consistently, throughout my time in schools it was really frustrating if you had a script that looked like a spider had thrown a major fit over the pages. Some exams were often largely unintelligible.”

“There was a fair likelihood that the student had a good brain but he was untidy on paper and so he would have performed much better in an oral situation.” There are always two sides to every coin.

And we now have the notion tabled that bad handwriting has been around a lot longer than the internet, and is in no way a direct result of misshapen Playstation thumbs.

Teachers in 2010 outline a situation that probably sounds familiar. Handwriting drills in the early years, leading into a need for quick to produce, easy to read no-frills handwriting from secondary and up. Sure, there’s a bit of influence from new technologies. But if handwriting is dying, it is not here.

It seems rather that, handwriting, like mathematics, is a skill that dies with age. As soon as word processors hit the workplace, writing skills were always going to be obsolete past university level. The more resistant a person to the concept of a computer full stop, the more likely they were to hold on to a heavily stylised method of handwriting. But when you have the Dalai Lama on Twitter – this itself is increasingly unlikely.

So we have the workplace – rather than the schoolyard – eating the tradition of handwriting. And while the tradition of handwriting dies off slowly with age, beginning somewhere in the frantic note taking of University or NCEA, it isn’t dying. We’re still handwriting, and technology may have changed this for better or worse, but we’re still handwriting.

Katy, 33, works in communications for a Wellington IT company. Katy, even at 33, manages to possess about as distinctive and stylised style of handwriting as you will probably find on your average adult. She also works at a firm where outmoding such cumbersome activities as handwriting is part and parcel of the ethos.

Katy maps out her own personal decline of handwriting. These sorts of stories are common, and cement the idea that the ability and will to handwrite well slowly dies in us. It isn’t driven by a wider push from society.

“I remember being quite fastidious with my writing, and quite proud of it. I spent quite a bit of time cultivating it. I don’t know if it was partly because I really only ever went to an all-girls school, but handwriting was a bit of a status symbol. Or at least I thought it was.”

“I remember making a mental note when the changeover happened to working more from a laptop at University, it was a gradual changeover, and thinking – “I’ll never be as expressive”, but then it happened. And you adapt very quickly.”

At her work, note-taking software and dictaphones are used to remove a lot of the grunt work of handwriting. “Whenever I have to write like crazy I end up lamenting the fact that my handwriting has gone to hell and even I can’t read it.”

She keeps her handwriting alive like most people do, writing notes, cards, or the odd letter. It is just a bit harder on the hand these days.

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If anything, handwriting is the most personal media format. Everyone has a story to share about their handwriting abilities and adventures as a child. One teacher referred to perfect handwriting being as “important at the age of eleven as owning a tamagotchi” (and there is a dated reference). People offered up stories of winning handwriting cups in the 1960s, at the age of seven, or still talked with visible pride about being awarded their “pen licence” in primary school.

Katy recalls with still vivid horror: “One of my earliest angst episodes had to do with me running out of ‘publishing paper’ in Standard One (year 3) and being stricken with fear for weeks as the pad got thinner and thinner. We were given a certain amount of publishing paper at the start of the term and that was it. I couldn’t help but write lots of stories at home. It ended up with me breaking down in front of my parents. The upshot was I got another publishing pad and no one was cross with me.”

So what does it all mean? As email undercuts letter writing, and word processors nullify the need for writing in the work place – is this a mere technological shift, or is it culturally something more significant?

Everyone spoken with all shared a similar view of handwriting. It is individualised, and there was a relative level of pride or shame attached to perceived handwriting successes and failures. No one really writes by hand that often any more, but even when the handwriting devolves into the positively spider-like it is still an expression of yourself.

People simply do not feel the same attachment to the typed word as the written word. We feel compelled to hold on to handwritten birthday cards, and old letters, far more so than the intangible correspondence stored in the digital cloud.

Katy sums this up astutely: “When people print out emails I find it quaint, a little backward and unnecessary. But is that what I need to do? Print everything out and stick it in a ring binder in order to have something physical to hold on to, rather than just a computer screen filled with words from a loved one? To read the actual hand-writing of someone who has passed on, or who is far away, is more immediate and evocative than any printed out email.“

“Where will it all go when we’re gone, and there’s no one around to remember our passwords?”

ENDS