Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stop teaching handwriting in school, do not

A few weeks ago I fell on an article written by a professor proposing that we stop teaching handwriting in school. I will not link to it, but if you Google it you are sure to find it. Her son was having trouble writing certain letters at school and she found, after a brief overview of the history of writing, that the time had come to move on to electronic writing methods and she ended with a fling at writing as so much pushing of a graphite stick in various directions. When I finished reading this, if I had had immediate access to the comments section, I would certainly have written that this was the stupidest idea I had ever heard in my entire life. I might have added something like, is your son also having trouble with art at school? Perhaps we should stop teaching art as well, we have computer graphics programs now, and after all it is just so much pushing around a paintbrush in various directions.
I was quite shocked at my reaction, at the strong emotions I felt, and of course I realised that that was partly the author’s intention: to be provocative. I then decided it did not merit serious thought or a serious reply and moved on.
Since then I have noticed that my post The importance of good handwriting is quite popular and I am constantly reminded of the contrary article. I have found myself mulling it over. Then I began to think (cue heavenly light) that perhaps it fell to me to reply to the article (cue singing angels), that my entire life up to now had brought me to this moment (cue dark clouds of doubt parting), that my blog was the perfect vehicle (cue sun), and that my blog post on this subject might be read by some young impressionable mind and it would encourage him to persevere in his handwriting technique and he would go on to become a second Shakespeare who would influence an entire generation…  (OK, cut the heavenly light, angels: take 15). 
I am not a professor, nor a writer; I am just a guy with a blog but I will tell you what I think off the top of my head and you will be the judge.
I find it sad and surely irresponsible that an educator should hold such a mistaken view (and encourage others to hold it) but I suppose it is a sign of the times. There will always be people impatient for change and impatient of the old ways. I know because I have acted in that way in my time also, unfortunately. It is the lot of impatient youth.
But it seems to me that learning how to write is the basic building block of education. And no matter how easy to use and ubiquitous the electronic tablet becomes, pen and paper will always be necessary and indeed an art form. Necessary because pen and paper are (almost) always to be had - computers, tablets, electricity and batteries are not. Use those other electronic forms by all means, but handwriting has to be there to fall back on. I am not going to belabour the point, it seems so obvious to me. I am sure you can think of a hundred situations where a written message is the best or the only way.
It also seems to me reprehensible that an educator should undermine children’s resolve to learn how to write by hand and also parents’ efforts to help and encourage them. Perhaps it is more difficult for some children than others, but if we were to choose what should be taught in school on that basis where would we be? There is something to be said for the process of overcoming difficulties and personal inclination and mastering a useful skill by perseverance.
Civilization has come the long road through many a dark brutal age to the point where literacy is possible for everyone today and the suggestion to abandon the written word in school after so many have struggled and fought to bring literacy to the world would be to do them and our children a great disservice.
But my real argument has more to do with this ‘fling it down the gutter’ attitude to all the old ways of doing things. I must sound very much like the baby boomer I am as I write this, but I do assure you in my time the shoe was on the other foot as you can read in my last post about handwriting. I have evolved, my attitude has changed, for the better I hope. The computer and the advance of technology is not the secret of happiness. People are less happy today than they were 50 years ago. All the twitters and e-mails you may send your friends may be fun, but I doubt they give as much pleasure as our ancestors (parents, grand parents!) enjoyed when they received a single thoughtful (handwritten) letter.
I am not against technology or progress. I have a blog don’t I? I am simply saying that not every technological advance is necessarily an advance for human happiness. Technology has to be used wisely, usefully, reasonably. And respect for the old ways is a virtue. A well-written, thoughtful letter is an art form in itself. Where there is no art in daily life, there is no life. No life worth the living.
I am reminded of something I read about the art of the Japanese Zen garden. The author was talking about how one might apply to a (Japanese) Zen garden master to become his pupil. He gave the master’s postal address. He advised that it might take some weeks or even months to receive an answer. Zen garden masters did not have faxes, still less computers.
I am sure they are quite, quite happy without them.

Read more about the lost art of letter writing at Proverbs 31 maiden.

Image: ‘Winter’s Child’ by Lucia


Will MacNeil said...

You are a lucky person. For you writing and drawing feel like an extension of your mind. There's a natural flow between what you think or imagine and what you're able to put down on paper. For many people this is not the case. For them a pencil, a stick of charcoal or a paint brush is not a conduit through which to express themselves, but a frustrating obstacle. Imagine a Parkinson's sufferer trying to hold a tray of drinks, or a stutterer forced to give a speech. Many people for many valid reasons find using a pencil or a paintbrush extremely difficult. And I am one of them.

My teachers were quick to point this out to my parents. The school didn't consider it a problem with motor skills. No it was lack of intelligence with words and creativity with a
brush. Thankfully my parents knew better and had an educational psychologist evaluate me. We were all pleased to hear that there was nothing wrong with my mind, but like many people, transferring what I thought to paper was never going to come easily for me. I am now 40. I'm a copywriter and an animator. I use computers for everything I write or design.

My story is not rare. What is rare is that my parents saw through the nonesense - the bogus belief that handwriting indicates intelligence. For many children the yolk goes on the day an ignorant teacher makes a fuss about an 'a' without a tail and misses the wonderful ideas hiddden in the awkward lines and curves.

For you the efforts of putting pencil to paper are effortless, for me they are the death of creative thought. Today you are the blogger and I am the animator. 30
years ago we would have sat across the classroom, you the clever one, me the slow kid. You might be glad that classrooms are still run like that, but I'm not.

Alex said...

I am glad for you that wise parents and technology allowed you to blossom. My beef is not against wise parents and technology and blossomers. My beef is against the fling the old ways down the gutter attitude of educators like the one in question.
You are a particular case. For the vast majority of children, handwriting is a talent and an art form worth the discipline needed to master it.
As for the 'clever kid sitting across the classroom' cheap shot, that only shows what you still have to overcome.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Everyone should learn good handwriting skills. Just as everyone should learn good typing skills. Handwriting means that no matter where we are, we can leave a legacy.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond