Did you know that many schools have stopped teaching handwriting altogether? All but six states as of February of this year have adopted the common core standards, which do not require that handwriting be taught. Individual schools may teach it if they want, but it is not required. And so a debate rages. Should we or shouldn’t we?
In the 19th century, “penmanship” was a major part of the curriculum. The ability to write well by hand was considered a matter of refinement, and no educated person failed to learn to do it. When I read the shocking (to me) news that handwriting was no longer being taught in some schools, I remembered the movie Seraphina, based on the true story of an uneducated mentally imbalanced French peasant who was a brilliant folk artist with an eye for beauty. Looking over her dealer’s shoulder one day, she noticed his handwriting; “You have beautiful handwriting,” she said–and later in the story, watching him write, she asked him , “Would you send me a letter?”
The argument against teaching handwriting, of course, is that it is no longer a useful skill; we are living in a digital age and what students need to learn is the QWERTY keyboard and computing skills. It no doubt is a question of allocation of classroom time, but I think it’s not just the need to learn computer skills that is pushing handwriting aside. The increased use of standardized tests also no doubt has a lot to do with it. When teachers as well as students are judged by the results of standardized tests, teachers are going to teach whatever it is that the test tests. And handwriting is not one of those things.
I find it hard to believe that 15 minutes a day (the amount of time experts say is necessary) cannot be found to teach a skill that I consider an essential element of personal identity. One’s handwriting is unique; a handwritten letter from a beloved makes your heart sing. It’s just not the same as an email or worse yet a text message: “I luv u. ”
There is some pushback to dropping handwriting from the curriculum and the culture. I believe some people’s standards of etiquette still require handwritten notes of condolence and thanks. And some parents insist that their children write thank you notes by hand. Still, the handwriting is often so atrocious (because the child has had little practice) that the recipient (probably a grandmother) is led to wonder what might be wrong with the kid.
And it may not be just a matter of appearance. Neuroscientific evidence is beginning to suggest that there is a vital connection between the brain and the hand that comes into play when one writes connecting letters: a connection that is beneficial in many ways. There seems to be no doubt that writing by hand helps you to remember what you have written. My sister (who has a beautiful hand) says she took copious and accurate lecture notes in college—and never looked at them. Just writing it down was enough to fix the material in her mind. And now I learn from Sarah, my actress daughter, that she learns her lines by writing them over and over.
The author Paul Theroux writes his books in longhand. It is, he says, part of the creative process. It is the speed at which he writes, he says, that enables him to find the best choice of words. I know exactly what he means. I love to write by hand. The joy of it comes from finding the speed at which your mind slightly outruns your hand so that the process is a steady flow of easeful words. Such a process is not possible if you are having to lift your pen after each letter.
I recently received a message from a former— very former— student. “You would have no reason to remember me,” he began. “I was just an average student.” Actually I do have a very vague remembrance of him, but what I remember with clarity, after all these years, is his handwriting.
Well, I know where I stand on this argument. How about you?
For more on cursive writing, see also here.