Is the handwriting on the Facebook wall?

Swedish schools are considering whether to abandon the teaching of handwriting. They will continue to teach block capitals, but the subtleties of cursive writing will no longer be transmitted outside the elite. Anyone else think this will lose one of the most wonderful cognitive tools ever invented? Handwriting helps you think. The physicality of it makes the associated mental processes clearer and more memorable.

This kind of argument is quite wasted on educational bureaucrats, for whom the question is whether children can learn to type faster and more clearly than they can write by hand. After all, there’s no call for handwriting in most jobs today, any more than there is any requirement for independent thought.

I don’t think there is any doubt that a trained typist can type faster and more legibly than it is possible to write in longhand. Nor have I ever found any kind of handwriting system that lets me communicate quickly and accurately with a technology or a computer (I do brain training on my 3ds and it thinks a 3 is a 7 on my handwriting). The nearest thing would be the phone keyboards that let you slide a finger around them instead of striking individual letters. In any case, they lack all distinctiveness. That’s an asset if you are feeding into machines. But the point of handwriting is not to communicate with machines. In some sense it’s not even a means of communication with other people. It is valuable because it distances us from machines, and makes our output both more precise and less predictable.

There is so much more encoded in a handwritten page than in something typewritten. The archives of metadata that Google or the NSA can collect around our words cannot match the variety and depth of associations that my handwriting reveals to me. It may not be apparent to anyone else, but the purpose of private thought is not immediately to be shared.

Handwriting is the expression of all those aspects of personality that cannot be shared or even glimpsed on Facebook. Handwriting is what I turn to when I need to discover thought – the pen, like a divining rod, moves in my hand towards something I can only feel and not yet see, especially when i’m working out some maths calculations.

This is partly because it is so much more complex an action than typing. That looks like a drawback, but we are physical, embodied creatures, and need to use muscles when we think properly. Just as walking is much better than sitting still if you want to work out a difficult problem, so does the varied co-ordination required to write cursively drive thought more efficiently than simply moving fingers up and down on to the keys.

It also captures the disconnected and chaotic ways in which real thought emerges. A handwritten page can have loops, insertions, deletions and marginalia in ways that computer software really finds hard to emulate. It works against the false simplistic certainties of PowerPoint and for that reason alone is a skill that all democracies should teach.


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