14 February 2006

The death of handwriting

Having only last week had to add an apology for my now appalling handwriting to a letter that accompanied some stuff to Lee, the essay below on that same subject from today's Guardian newspaper seems especially appropriate. While I'm sure we're all excellent typists by now, has that come at the expense of physically being able to write as well as we used to? I used to be complimented on my handwriting - not that it was the fancy script that's often associated with a fine hand, but it was clear and kind of reflected my personality - but now, my hand and wrist physically feels like it's about to cramp up if I do much more than addressing an envelope in block capitals! Anyway, here's the essay from the paper...

The death of handwriting

We spend our working days tapping into computers. We communicate with each other via email rather than letter. And today, as chip and pin technology becomes compulsory on the high street, even our signatures have become obsolete. Could it really all be over for handwriting? Stuart Jeffries reports...

Patrick McGoohan's words are becoming less and less true as technology extends its cheerless remit. "I am not a number," he declared in The Prisoner, "I am a free man." But increasingly we are numbers - digitised and quantified, rewritten as algorithms and asked for our personal codes to confirm who we are before call centre workers will deign to bandy words with us. As if to prove the point, from this morning anyone with a chip and pin card will be obliged to use their pin number and not their signature when making a purchase. It seems odd that the powers-that-be have used Valentine's Day as the deadline for their unromantic automatisation project. Who, after all, writes poetry about pin cards? Let's have a go. "Roses are red, violets are blue, my pin number is 3, 5, 4, 2" (It isn't, incidentally. I'm not that daft).

Rather than sinuous penmanship, our identities are increasingly confirmed by numbered sequences that have been imposed on us. And, if signatures are becoming increasingly irrelevant, what then is the future for handwriting in a world when (according to a new Lloyds TSB Insurance survey) one in three children has a computer in the bedroom, many more are accustomed to writing on them at home and school and, if I had a penny for every time I have heard or read parents and teachers bemoaning the poor state of pupil's handwriting, I would have enough for a £335 Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen in precious resin with a gold-plated finish?

Yesterday afternoon I received a lovely letter from a correspondent that began: "Please forgive scribbled note. I can no longer type." But why, with all due respect, should anyone ask forgiveness when favouring me with the personal touch of their penmanship? When did typing become better than handwriting? (To which question an irritatingly good reply is: If you're so clever, why didn't you write this article by hand?)

Our very personalities seems to be slipping away when it comes to determining our identities. True, even signatures can be hellishly commodified (think of how Picasso's signature became the imprimatur of the boring Citroën people carrier), but they do at least remain distinctive to each of us, and an expression, whether we understand it or not, of some aspect of our character. As the website for the British Institute of Graphology says on its home page: "As a child you were taught to write. Why don't you continue to write the way you were taught?" The fact that you don't, it postulates, is the reason graphology exists.

Elaine Quigley, psychologist and chairwoman of the institute, says: "Pen and paper will always be necessary. Everything changes but I think writing will survive." She would say that, wouldn't she? Her discipline depends on people disclosing their personalities via handwriting.

The death of handwriting has been greatly exaggerated, says Patricia Lovett, fellow of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society. "When the telephone was invented, for example, it was thought that there would be no need for writing, then this was repeated with the invention of the typewriter, again with the computer, fax machine, emails and, recently, texting. At each stage some have suggested that this would result in the demise of the need to write by hand. Yet so far, this has not been the case. Even though some people may find typing easier than handwriting, putting pen to paper is something that children need to learn to do." But why, when we have so many other means of communicating? Lovett imagines a time when the electricity is down, your palm-held is on the blink, there is no sun to recharge the batteries and something essential needs to be written down. "What is to be done - employ a scribe? I don't think so."

Sumerian merchants were the first to codify their transactions in a recognisable script more than 5,000 years ago. They were alone in this discovery, archaeologists have long claimed, though some new evidence suggests the Egyptians were developing pictorial hieroglyphics independently at the same time.

(The less prosaic version is to be found in Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of a god who offers an Egyptian king a miraculous aid to frail human memory. The king is sceptical, as is Socrates who warns that writing will replace memory and argues that the truth that lives in the human soul will be dissolved in its translation into ambiguous inscription. (Ironically, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, we only know of Socrates' sceptical thoughts about writing because Plato wrote them down.)

The Sumerians used a stylus and wet clay to record the ingredients for beer. The endlessly inventive outpouring of human writing thus grew out of commercial necessity. Since then, the history of writing is one of a virulent spread of the written word, such as India's 200 different scripts, or Japanese which has three scripts and thousands of characters. But the story also cannot miss the wholesale erasure of written cultures. The Spanish destruction of Mayan civilisation meant the loss of thousands of documents; only four codices survive.

According to Steven Roger Fischer, author of A History of Writing, Hitler decreed that the Latin script should replace the Gothic, which had hitherto been a symbol of Germanic identity. Gothic was described by the Nazis as a "Jewish script", but quite possibly, behind this racist rhetoric were practical considerations: Latin script was easier to write. In Britain, Latin handwriting styles were popularised in the first writing manual in the 1570s. Early Victorians used a copperplate style with thick and thin strokes, but later in the 19th century, the "Vere Foster civil service" hand was most frequently taught in schools. Only in the 1930s was the semi-cursive or joined-up style known as round hand developed. Most schools now teach a variant of this.

But there are other national handwriting cultures. Different national forms of handwriting are distinctive - British, French and American schoolchildren, for instance, write in entirely distinct ways. In France an ideological row over handwriting erupted in 2002 when the education minister, Jack Lang, decided to stop teaching French children the traditional baroque handwriting because he claimed it had resulted in loss of legibility at speed and the failure of some disadvantaged secondary students to write at all. Lang said he "felt it was time France had a clearer; more businesslike handwriting for the 21st century", while critics bemoaned the loss of a piece of French heritage.

Today, Latin script's global dominance is intensified not just by the global stranglehold of English but because of computers. Times New Roman is everywhere because it is Microsoft's default typeface. Writing and handwriting have grown apart. Brian Dillon, lecturer in English at the University of Kent, writes in his review of Fischer's book: "In a world in which most of our handwriting is as unreadable as ancient Sudanese, writing dominates as never before in the form of a technological spectre: Plato's 'dream-image'."

If that is the case, what is the future for handwriting? What, really, is the point of teaching our children to write, when most writing can be word processed and voice recognition technology can turn speech into text? There is a very interesting discussion of just this at the Basic Skills Agency website (go to basic-skills.co.uk), a discussion whose chosen medium, one might think, proves the sceptic's point.

One correspondent, Alan Wells, bemoans his own handwriting, before writing: "My point is, does it matter? I've had two chairman [sic] who were major industrialists, neither of whom had handwriting better than mine. It didn't seem to stop them rising to the top in business even though much of their rise must have been before the introduction of the word processor. So is it worth schools spending endless time on handwriting when it seems to matter less and less? Could the time not be spent better? And so long as we have access to word processors why bother?"

Quigley, though, is convinced that writing is a skill we will always need. "There are lots of reasons to write. If you have a shopping list to write for example, or a note for a milkman."

Personally, I don't know when I last had a milkman, still less when I last left him a billet doux. A more persuasive argument for the maintenance of handwriting is surely that, as students learn this skill, they are building other developmental skills such as sequential memory and fine motor ability. These fundamental skills assist students in other essential academic areas such as maths. There is also a strong aesthetic argument: we shouldn't neglect the sheer beauty of which handwriting is capable. As Professor Rosemary Sassoon, author of Handwriting: The Way to Teach It, says: "Handwriting is an imprint of the self on the page."

The national curriculum, in any event, now stresses handwriting skills. The four criteria of the Sats level two handwriting test are legibility, consistent size and spacing of letters, flow and movement, and a confident personal style. But there is a problem. Anecdotal evidence suggests that young children have fewer opportunities for developing pre-writing skills, such as balance, hand-eye coordination and muscle control, which can themselves be critical in developing good handwriting ability as the child grows.

"Doing jigsaws, modelling clay or stacking saucepans inside one another helps to develop these skills, but time spent on such activities is decreasing in favour of more passive pursuits such as watching TV," contends Beverly Scheib of the Institute of Education, a special-needs consultant and handwriting specialist. It is not only later in life, it seems, that technology is a threat to writing development. Indeed, as reading levels have improved in recent years, writing skills have not. The Department for Education and Skills, which set up a National Literacy strategy in 1998, has noted that even though reading skills rose subsequently, writing did not until a concerted programme was subsequently devoted to it.

Thus, even as some disparage handwriting, the government is refusing to let it become a minority interest along with other skills such as scrimshaw or horse riding. And not only the government. In May, for instance, the National Handwriting Competition will take place and thousands of children's handwriting skills will be judged for legibility, flow, consistency, individuality, layout and tidiness. Perhaps this is one of those competitions for children that does not require rote performances (handwriting competitions are very different, in this sense, from spelling bees). Perhaps handwriting's obituary has been typed too soon. We may not be numbers after all.


Blogger Lee H. said...

I'll tell you why we still need handwriting- Post-It notes! :)

Seriously, though, good article. I wonder about this myself sometimes. Not only is my own writing really atrocious (but it was even pre-PC, I have to admit), but I see younger people at work whose handwriting could pass for a child's.

11:47 AM, February 15, 2006  
Blogger KateGladstone said...

As a handwriting improvement specialist, I get enough calls for help that I cannot regard handwriting (or the quest to improve it) as "dead."
As many of these calls (and e-mails) come from persons under sixteen as over sixteen — the younger set often talk of some sad moment when. for the first time in theirlives, they had to write without a computer.

1:25 PM, January 19, 2007  

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