Friday, March 26, 2010

In Defense of Handwriting (Babble)

There have been several articles here and there recently about whether or not children should still be taught cursive in school.  The first time I came across one I didn’t give it much thought.  My reaction was some version of “whatever” and I didn’t dwell on it.  I had a vague question in my head about what that would mean for how people would develop their signatures for signing documents in the future, but beyond that it didn’t seem important.

But I’ve had more time to consider it, and I’m coming down squarely on the side of teaching handwriting to children.

I started thinking about this in more detail after a debate I had with one of my brothers over the holidays about spelling.  One of the tangents that discussion took touched on handwriting, and he thinks it’s pointless.  His arguments were that it was time wasted in school that could be used for better things, people use keyboards now, printing is clearer, not enough bang for your educational buck essentially.

My brother and I come from different places in our fields of study which likely affects our perspectives on many issues.  He’s a scientist and is accustomed to stripping things down to quantifiable elements.  Things he deals with need to be efficient, practical and show clear benefit or progress.  Music has other aims.  I want to capture something from the past with most of the music I play.  I want to participate in a living tradition of musical knowledge passed down from one generation to another.  I experience the value of doing things simply because they are beautiful in a way that doesn’t touch my brother’s work life in the same way.  Science and music speak to different parts of the human condition and both help us understand our world and our place in it, but I think they prime our reactions as to what things are important quite differently.

So I’m leading with my weakest argument in favor of handwriting because it makes sense to me.  (I’ve got practical points in a moment if this one seems irrelevant.)  Handwriting done well is beautiful.  There is value in that.  How impressive is it that we remember John Hancock on the strength of his extravagant signature?  That’s some handwriting with impact.  There was a girl I went to school with named Nicola, and I didn’t know her well, but I still remember her handwriting.  It was sophisticated and gorgeous.  My brother sarcastically suggested that we should keep cursive because “that’s how grandma did it.”  But that’s not a joke to me.  I like doing some things like grandma did it.  There’s value in that too.  Finding small ways to connect us to the past makes us less likely to forget our history.  I’m not someone who thinks the past was better–I’m thrilled to be living in the here and now–but I also don’t think everything has to be streamlined to be good.  Efficiency isn’t always an improvement.  Sometimes it’s just cold.

If that’s too ethereal, here are the practical arguments in favor of handwriting.  Sometimes you need to write by hand.  That’s just true, regardless of technology.  And it makes sense to learn to do it in a way that is both quick and understood by many.  I have a dozen legal pads scrawled with my notes from four years of violin making school.  That was not an environment that lent itself to taking notes on a laptop or other such device.  I did transfer my notes at the end of each week onto my computer to print out in a more easily accessible form, but my original notes were invaluable.  I have nice printing, but it’s slower.  Cursive writing on paper was the most practical way to record the information I needed, and that’s been true for much of my life.  I would be unhappy working on a novel that way, and I love typing these posts, but for writing on a post-it, or for jotting down information in an unexpected place, or slipping a note under a door, you still have to write.  Electronic gadgets for writing are superior in many cases, but not for everything, and why limit yourself?

My favorite recent example of a moment when handwriting proved superior to technology was during the holidays when my whole family took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I ended up watching all the tots in the kids’ area and had to be content with other people’s reports of the fabulous things they’d seen, and both my brothers had enjoyed the exhibit on the Arts and Crafts movement.  Barrett pulled out his pamphlet with pictures of some of the more impressive furniture on display, and in one of the margins in his distinctive and lovely handwriting he’d put down a William Morris quote that moved him and that he wanted to remember.  Arno also had recorded a quote that he wanted to share, but he’d spent a long amount of time typing it into his phone and it didn’t seem to have saved properly so I have no idea what it was.  (He preferred to ignore the irony in this when I brought it up during our discussion later.)

Besides being a basic skill kids should learn because writing legibly is practical, I think there is something to giving them a way to train their hands.  It takes practice to learn to control and strengthen the muscles in your hands well.  More people should be trained in basic drawing skills because drawing is extremely useful (and is another area of education that is too thoughtlessly dismissed), and I think writing for many is the closest a lot of us get to drawing.  If you develop the skills it takes to make clear curves and straight lines you have a lot of possiblities at your fingertips.  Why not do that with writing?  If you are going to spend time to learn to take an image in your mind and successfully get your hands to transfer it to the page, why not practice that with something so useful?  You can’t expect kids to type on keyboards and then just magically know how to use their hands for something else.  It doesn’t work that way.  Practice is necessary, and that is not time wasted.

Writing things yourself also helps you process them in a different way.  I know I make the most progress in teaching people to read music when I make them write it out themselves.  Just because they’ve seen a treble clef and recognize it, doesn’t mean they have ever really taken the time to process what it really looks like.  Making them think about it and engage different parts of their brain to write it out helps them learn.  Writing helps teach you how to see.

And lastly, it’s personal.  My brother tends to focus on the information that is being communicated as the central point.  He doesn’t think the means by which an idea is displayed is relevant in most cases, and resents it when people’s ideas are judged unfairly based on presentation.  I can see that, but the method does matter.  That’s why even when typing you have to consider the font or color, etc., because it will affect the impact of your point.  Ideas are important, but they are not everything.  Sometimes you just want to hold something that you know another person held.  When you take the time to write certain thoughts down, the mere act of writing them with your own hands is powerful.

I have probably a hundred fascinating, well-written, gripping, touching emails from my husband during his last deployment.  I’m glad he shared those thoughts.  But I also have two hand-written letters just to me from that same time, and which do you think I come back to most often?  I don’t want to print out an email that says, “I love you” that looks the same as if I’d written it to myself some lonely afternoon.  I want a piece of paper that was in Iraq with my husband, that he wrote on in his own slightly scrunchy handwriting, that tells me he was thinking of me when he put that pen to paper, and that is a unique reminder of the man I love.  The idea is not always the same when you change the delivery.  Sometimes the delivery is the idea.  An education that does not prepare children to communicate their ideas in a way that is powerful and personal, efficient and beautiful, is not a full education.

My children go to a public Montessori school, and there they start cursive in kindergarten.  I love seeing Aden’s homework all in cursive.  She’s got a good hand and she’s improving all the time.  I prefer a hand drawn and written birthday card from my daughter to something she could have printed out on the computer or bought in a store.  I have a feeling my brother is just playing devil’s advocate with me on some of these points because I’ve seen the binder he has of all the letters his wife wrote to him from India before they were married.  And his five year old daughter composed an inspiring ‘list for life’ that is moving because it was written in her own hand.  The ideas are wonderful, but typed out would lack authenticity.  Seeing the words “Be kind to people” in her childish printing gives it a heartfelt charm that the idea alone lacks.  Her innocence shines through, and the sentiment is her own, not something anyone might have said.

Having given it this much thought, I’ve made an effort recently to work on my own handwriting.  I tend to print because it’s clearer, but if I take a moment and use care, there is nothing about my handwriting that is hard to read.  When I take the time anymore to write a real letter, I do it in cursive.  Just like grandma did it.

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