Is handwriting doomed?

To borrow from and revise Shakespeare (quite audacious of me ), I come not to bury handwriting nor to praise it.  Much has already been written – or should I say put in print – by technocrats signaling the assumed demise of handwriting, particularly cursive writing, and with no regrets mentioned. Just another pre-computer age relic, so be it. But before we bid adieu to the power of the pen, axiomatically being replaced by the power of the keyboard, let’s reflect on writing by hand.

At the conclusion of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 the anti-intellectual hedonistic society that bans and burns books has all but collapsed and it is given to the “book-keepers” to start anew; in cases like this, those who possess fundamental skills are called upon;  survivors who are aware of how to apply rudimentary means to solve essential needs.

I remember an experience with a long-ago acquaintance who had a passion for sailing. He built a beautiful sailboat by himself and after it had proven seaworthy, he invited me to go sailing with him. One of the many fascinating features on the boat was that he had opted for a tiller rather than a steering wheel. When I questioned him as to why he had chosen to use the more labor intensive older means of maneuvering the vessel, he was quite clear: for him, the tiller was more responsive, more reliable, and simpler and therefore less prone to mechanical trouble. In fact much later I learned that emergency tillers are quite often used at least as a backup in case the steering wheel on a vessel fails to operate.

There is a story, a folktale of sorts.  It tells of a particular community that had invoked an involved ritual since time immemorial to protect its village. The knowledge of this was taught from generation to generation and thereby kept intact. But little by little as time went by, succeeding generations were less and less rigorous about learning the intricacies of the ritual, and subsequently forgot and left out steps one by one until all they could remember was the very basic incantation they had been taught, but  when this  itself was uttered,  amazingly it brought about the desired result.

GFDL or CC-BY-SA*

I reference these anecdotes here as they relate to handwriting. It may very well be a fundamental skill,  and a survival skill. It may also be a mind enhancing skill. Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham maintains that handwriting is a necessary building block: a number of studies show that quality of handwriting can affect everything from students’ grades to the complexity of expressed thought.

Keeping things in perspective, communication technology has certainly evolved; from Oral Culture, to Manuscript Culture, to Print Culture, to the present Electronic/Digital Culture. There are some who project a future, enabled by technology, in which a neo-oral culture will emerge. I have mentioned this in a previous post. As each successive innovation arrives it tends to impact but not necessarily displace previous means – back in 1955 a Saturday Evening Post article bemoaned the sure to come end of handwriting due to: “an increasing reliance on telephone, typewriter, dictating machines and electronic brains”.

To be sure handwriting was not always egalitarian. In ancient cultures scribes, persons educated in the art of writing, were an elite group. During medieval times, this exclusive competency became much the province of cloistered monks, whose painstaking copying of manuscripts is typically regarded as saving, along with the work of less heralded Jewish and Islamic scholars of the period,  a legacy of knowledge through the dark ages. In colonial times in America, there was a clear distinction between acquisition of skill in reading versus writing; the former, fairly universal, while writing on the other hand was generally reserved for males in the professions and the merchant class. By the eighteenth century, writing had become a usual skill of the well-bred, both men and women. Eventually, teaching penmanship passed from writing masters to public schools. The Spencerian method, first introduced in the 1840’s, and later superseded by the simpler, less elegant Palmer method in the early 1900’s became de rigueur as a part of everyone’s elementary education. Everyone developed a distinct if not perfect handwriting in the process.

Indeed, handwriting is very personal. This is something to recommend it. Historians can pour over a rough draft of a handwritten document, replete with strikeouts and word revisions, and garner much of value through such analysis. The personal touch of a handwritten note has a value as well, to the recipient.

When all is said and done, any advance assumes a cumulative aspect, not a zero sum approach. In origin, the word advance in fact comes from the idea of being in front (of ); implying something is backing up whatever is in front – in the case of tools of communication, handwriting is the ultimate backup.

Two good books on the subject of handwriting are Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Professor Tamara Plakins Thornton and the recent Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey.

*Vintage Esterbrook Pen Co. Ad, copyright (c) 2009, Communicators & Communications. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU
Free Documentation License”
.

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