The writing is on the wall for ... writing itself

Steven Schwartz

17 November 2017 | AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
child school reading writingThe Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, was a thoroughly loathsome man. He conquered the Jews, ransacked their holy temple and plundered its sacred golden vessels.

His son, Belshazzar, exulting in his father’s triumph, decided to throw a party in his honour. To show his disdain for his father’s victims, Belshazzar used the holy temple vessels to serve his guests wine.

Later that night, as the merriment was in full swing, a disembodied hand mysteriously appeared and wrote a message on the wall, “You are weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That marked the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.

The year was 539 BC, but the story is well known and “the writing is on the wall” remains part of our language today. In contrast, handwriting is largely forgotten.

A New Yorker magazine writer lamented the demise of joined-up (cursive) writing in 1966. As Mark Twain might have said, that news was highly exaggerated. Handwriting was not dead but, like a histrionic opera heroine with a fatal illness, it was suffering a long lingering denouement. In recent years, the pace of decline has accelerated.

Australia Post tells us that the volume of personally addressed mail has slumped by half in the past eight years. A handwritten letter in the mail queue stands out like a vintage car in a stream of shiny new Teslas. A recent poll conducted by Docmail, a printing and mailing company, found that one in three people had not handwritten anything longer than a shopping list in the previous six months. In 2015, the Thomas Cook Group published a survey showing that, on any particular day, half the population never picks up a pen or pencil. This is not surprising; the Bic pen company says that one in 10 teenagers does not even own a pen.

Handwriting, increasingly absent from everyday life, is also vanishing from the professions. Doctors, long infamous for sloppy writing, are giving up scribbling prescriptions preferring to generate them by computer. Their patients should be relieved. Over the years, doctors’ illegible scrawls have resulted in thousands of medication errors, some fatal. Digital prescriptions are much safer. They are not only easy to read but computers also double-check dosages, side effects and drug interactions against online databases.

Medicine is not the only profession that is moving away from handwriting. Lawyers say that e-signatures are more secure and easier to verify than the obscure squiggles at the bottom of letters. Accountants no longer write in ledgers and newspapers do not accept handwritten articles for publication.

In a particularly ominous sign, Finland, widely considered an educational leader because of its students’ strong performance on international tests, has stopped compelling schools to teach cursive writing. Instead, Finnish teachers are advised to devote their time to “keyboarding”. According to Minna Harmanen, from the Finnish National Board of Education, “fluent typing skills are an important national competence” – implying that handwriting is not. The Finns are not alone. The Common Core State Standards (a school curriculum adopted by more than 40 American states) has gone down the same road. Students attending schools in Common Core states must learn to print individual letters, but cursive writing is optional.

In contrast to Finland and many American states, the Australian Curriculum (which applies to all states and territories) still requires instruction in cursive writing. Students begin with printing, but by Year 3 they are expected to “write using joined letters that are accurately formed and consistent in size”. The curriculum does not describe what these joined letters should look like because, in a throwback to the days of different railroad gauges, each state clings to its preferred style.

After Year 3, the Australian Curriculum does not specify any achievement standard for writing nor is penmanship assessed in national examinations. Given that no expectations have been set and no external assessments conducted, it is not surprising that many (perhaps most) schools expend minimal effort teaching writing. The results are evident to those who mark school examinations. Like President Trump’s tweets, the handwriting of many young people consists entirely of capital letters. SAD!

The decline of handwriting has been precipitous, but it has not vanished entirely. Some authors claim that writing by hand stimulates their creativity. That’s why JK Rowling drafted her Harry Potter books using a pen, and Quentin Tarantino writes his screenplays using a pencil.

For many professionals, there is no practical alternative to handwriting. Overstretched nurses find it more efficient to jot down their observations on patients’ charts than to type them on a keyboard. Convenience is the reason that teachers continue to write corrections in the margins of papers and why signatures, those hastily scribbled declarations of who we are, remain in wide use — on hotel registrations, marriage certificates and even electronic receipts for deliveries..

But, convenience is not the only reason handwriting refuses to perish; it is also kept alive by tradition and nostalgia. As Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (2016) put it:

  • When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticise the older one … for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion … [whereas] handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity.

Intimacy, originality and authenticity are all highly valued. The Thomas Cook Group poll that found only half the population writes anything on a given day also found that 28 per cent of people save handwritten love letters (even from their exes). One quarter retains written thank-you notes and postcards. They may only be blue-black smears, but signatures are definitely original. This is why fans collect autographs and readers ask authors to sign their books. As for authenticity, the five-dollar note in your wallet may be graced with a portrait of the Queen, but it still relies on the signature of the Governor of the Reserve Bank to convey its trustworthiness.

Perhaps because it is old-fashioned and requires some effort, handwriting has acquired the aura of bespoke craftsmanship. “Handwritten” is the name of a rock album, a film producer and a fashion company. Catering to artisanal needs, shops such as the Il Papiro chain sell elegant papers, pens, blotters, wax seals, even quills. In addition to selling pens and stationery, the Officeworks chain sponsors Time to Write workshops that promise “a greater sense of life satisfaction” for those who spend “just 15-20 minutes of handwriting a day”.

For writers such as Anne Trubek, upmarket stationery shops and New Age writing workshops confirm that handwriting is no longer a quotidian form of communication but a craft. Like other crafts, Trubek believes that handwriting should be relegated to art classes where it could be taught to an ever-diminishing group of interested students. An editorial in The Los Angeles Times put this view quite bluntly: “States and schools shouldn’t cling to cursive based on the romantic idea that it’s a tradition, an art form or a basic skill whose disappearance would be a cultural tragedy.”

Many educators disagree. They say teaching handwriting in primary school produces cognitive benefits, such as fine motor skills and eye-hand co-ordination. These skills are not easy to acquire using a keyboard because the cognitive and motor processes required for typing are different from those used in writing. To handwrite a letter, a child must form a mental image of the letter’s shape. The child then uses this image to guide a pen or pencil.

Edouard Gentaz, an education researcher, calls this process “directing movement by thought”. With practice, the specific movements needed to draw each letter create a unique “motor memory” that not only facilitates writing but also helps children recognise letters when learning to read. Using a keyboard does not create unique memories because the motor movement required for typing any letter or punctuation mark is identical (a key press).

Handwriting also beats typing for remembering lessons. Psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that university students who took lecture notes on laptops performed worse on a subsequent examination than students who handwrote their notes. According to Mueller, the “laptop note-takers took … verbatim notes, signalling that they were processing the content less than the longhand note-takers.”

Students who took notes by hand could not get every word down, so they were forced to think about what they were hearing and reframe it in their own words thereby improving their memory. In the light of this research, some school systems (Singapore, France) have decided to re-emphasise cursive writing. Six American states have reintroduced it into their schools.

A potent combination of tradition, nostalgia, craftsmanship, practicality and educational research suggests that once again the “writing is on the wall”. Unlike King Nebuchadnezzar, handwriting has been weighed in the balance and found necessary.

Steven Schwartz is Chair of ACARA & Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He was vice-chancellor of Macquarie, Brunel and Murdoch universities.

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