Handwriting is dying a slow death

Nuns and school teachers everywhere are cringing at the grave state of handwriting. Are perfectly looped Gs and right-slanted sentences becoming obsolete?

Anne Trubek, author of “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” seems to think our culture is heading in that direction.

“The digital revolution is both launching us into a no-handwriting future, and also sending us backwards in time to when the spoken word ruled,” she says.

But, she adds, that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

“I don’t think kids should be assessed on their ability to master cursive,” Trubek says. “It’s not something that they are going to use much in their lives as they grow older. It’s not something most of us adults use in [our] lives today.” She suggests that schools offer handwriting or cursive as an elective or art class in the future.

Trubek argues that content is more important than the medium of the writing itself.

“Focus on how to teach kids to express their ideas, how to organize their thoughts, how to make arguments” she says. “The forming of the letters are less important. And there are certainly many ways to individualize what you write beyond the way you’ve circled the ‘I’ or crossed your ‘T.’”

But many studies show students absorb information better when they write their notes than when they type them.

Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California published research in 2014 that found students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took hand-written notes. The idea: Hand-written note taking is slower, which forces students to focus and recapitulate the core points of the information.

Other research links handwriting in early childhood education with later academic success. Some professors and teachers still ban electronic note-taking in class.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong," Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, told The New York Times. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.”  

The debate extends from the classroom and into the political realm. States are passing laws that mandate student cursive proficiency — Alabama, California and Louisiana among them.

“A lot of people are very adamant about the importance of [handwriting], but at the same time will admit they never handwrite themselves,” Trubek says.

She also believes that people in more oral-based cultures “have much more capacious memories than those of us who live in literate cultures. Just imagine if you could never look anything up, how much more you could retain if you knew you could never just look it up later.”

Trubek suggests, however, that handwriting retains some value — for now.

“For us today, in 21st century America, handwriting represents something individual and unique about a person,” Trubek says. “It hasn’t always meant that in previous times in history, and it won’t always mean that in the future, but right now for us we relate our sense of self to our handwriting.”

She adds:"It is the effort that is taken by the writer. If I were to write on my computer a long letter, print it out, and then put it in an envelope and write the snail mail address and put a stamp on it and send it through the mail, [that] is meaningful because you’ve taken more time and effort.”

And she concludes: "A lot of the handwriting we still do today is valuable because people recognize it took more effort to do it because an email is simply easier to do.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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