Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do we need to know ancient technologies, like handwriting?

Tenured Radical has a good post up about one of my favorite topics, handwriting; she'd like to know (1) the reason behind the poor handwriting of the recent generation of students and (2) whether they want us to excuse them for it when they apologize for poor handwriting. I'm not sure that it has gotten worse recently, although I do hear more apologetic murmurs of "I hope you can read my handwriting" than I did 15 years ago.

TR says that handwriting practice was boring (true) but good discipline for undertaking other boring tasks like checking footnotes (also true). However, boring tasks let your mind run free, else why would so many of us write notes and doodle when we're in a meeting? No one's ever going to ask  for the notes, and are you really so fascinated by the meeting that you want to memorialize it in letters?
There's also a goodly amount of research linking writing by hand to learning.

But is writing by hand really necessary? I said here that some people treat it as a ridiculous thing to learn, like powdering a wig, but Bob Zenhausern goes me one better by stating that teaching handwriting is "an insane practice" . Since "pre-school children would figure out texting on their own," why teach them to write on paper? They should be given a keyboard, not a pencil, he continues. [Question: If they would learn texting on their own, wouldn't that be a good reason to teach them something they don't know, like writing by hand, when they get to school?]

 Zenhausern is a K-12 educator, and I am not, so maybe he knows something I don't about the developmental qualities of using a pencil in eye-hand coordination, learning to recognize letters, muscle control, and, yes, TR's discipline. Maybe those aren't necessary; I can't say.

 But here is the equipment you need to type or text: a functioning phone, ipad, or computer and electricity or a solar charger.  Here is the equipment you need to write by hand: a pencil and paper or your finger and a smooth stretch of sand or mud.

That's not a good argument, though, not really, nor is the "you need to be able to write your signature" argument a strong one. We sign things electronically all the time, including tax forms, without using handwriting, and if we stop learning to write manually, why, we can just revert to ancestral practices and sign with an X.

I think that handwriting is the canary in a very contemporary coal mine. Right now we're in the midst of a great dividing process between what some think of as  "frills" and "no-frills" education, where "frills" are coded as old fashioned and "no-frills" are fabulously modern and the wave of the future.


  • critical thinking (which Texas just voted against)
  • a sense of history
  • the humanities ('nuff said)
  • knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, including ancient languages
  • knowledge of multiple kinds of literacies in addition to digital literacy 
  • knowledge of literature other than current literature and media
  • handwriting
  • the arts
  • multiple forms of writing, including essays as well as contemporary short forms (texting, tweeting) 
  • in-person education with live professors and classes on a human scale with essays or other writing assignments
  • technical knowledge gained for a specific certification or job
  • knowledge of digital literacy and present-day popular culture
  • independent learning with crowdsourced feedback 
  • automated lectures and grading
  • texting, tweeting, and other forms of contemporary writing only (no essays)
  • multiple-choice tests 
Which frills are we willing to go to the mattresses over? Will handwriting be one of them? 


Anonymous said...

I dunno, my mom just went on a rant about this yesterday.

As for critical thinking skills, I wasn't aware that was ever part of K-12. What gets me is how they're not part of the state college curriculum in much of the South, at least if you believe our graduate students (who do *learn* critical thinking skills, and are fully capable of doing so, but it's an uphill battle first semester).

undine said...

Nicole--that worries me; I don't want to become a rant factory about this. My bigger concern is that it'll become a class issue, like the rest of the liberal arts--something that the "haves" will get because they need to rule the world and the "have nots" don't need because they're cogs in the machine--Morlocks and Eloi, as I said a while back. About critical thinking skills: that may be a buzzword for something that already was getting done, but in any case I've thoroughly mixed up K12 & university frills/nofrills here--sorry.

Z said...

It's education vs. training, and it *is* a class issue. There were a couple of decades in which there was education for all, but mostly education was an elite thing and it is to that we have returned or are returning.

Nicole and Maggie, all true re critical thinking.