Digital Divide Issue #3:  The Great Handwriting Debate

Last month’s edition focused on the role analog tools, and specifically handwriting, play in my workflow and thought process.  I’ve been following the “debate” that’s made its rounds on social media and the podcast world over the past few months, over whether or not handwriting has outlived its usefulness and should continue to be taught in schools.  The general theme of the anti-handwriting camp is that the time spent teaching children handwriting could be better spent teaching them other subjects, such as math or computer science, and that learning handwriting is essentially a waste of time since everything will be “going digital” in the future.
You all can probably guess my feelings on this subject.  I don’t believe handwriting is a waste of time, and those people who do tend to focus on how learning handwriting in school was a negative experience for themselves and their children.  To a point, I can sympathize: I received B's and C's in handwriting during my elementary school years because I held my pencil "incorrectly", even though my handwriting was perfectly legible and, by all accounts, nice-looking.  I generally agree that over the years, schools have tended to focus far too much on having “pretty” handwriting, with large, perfectly formed cursive letters, etc.. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m ambivalent about whether or not kids should learn cursive at all:  other than the experience and discipline of going through the learning process, I’m not sure it actually adds much over printing or hybrid-italic styles of writing (except possibly speed).  The thought of learning and writing cursive doesn’t generate a feeling of nostalgia in me like it does in some people.  Most adults' everyday cursive tends to be illegible, and there’s actually a corner of the “save handwriting” movement out there that advocates teaching italic-style script in an effort to make people’s handwriting more legible and useful for professional purposes.  Philip Hensher also discusses this in some depth in his excellent book, "The Missing Ink."
I place more importance on the cognitive benefits of handwriting than anything else.  Accordingly, I do think that if we give up teaching and valuing handwriting altogether, we stand to lose a lot.  So what exactly, do I consider the benefits of handwriting?

Better Processing and Retention of Information.  To me, this is the primary benefit of writing by hand.  Repeated studies have shown that students who take notes by hand process and retain information better than those taking notes on a computer.  My own experience has born this out, especially in law school where the notetaking laptop has become standard issue, and students compete to see who can take the best verbatim notes of whatever it is the professor is saying.  Writing down fewer, but more meaningful, notes is the way to go.  If you can do this with a laptop, and avoid the siren song of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, good for you, but it's more difficult, and the fact that you have to actively work to avoid distraction can be a drain on your focus and energy.   
Slowing Down.  During the last issue I discussed how working “offline” using pen and paper is a tool that I use when I want to slow down and develop my thoughts, especially when I’m in the early stages of outlining or drafting a project.  By omitting the teaching of handwriting, you limit the ability of the next generation to think deeply about issues by working in this way, and compound the difficulties they are already facing by forcing them back onto their digital distraction devices.
Handwriting as a Reflection of One’s Values and Personality.   Ok, so this one’s a bit on the sentimental side, but there’s also a practical justification for it as well.  Handwriting has the ability to communicate in a way that’s increasingly becoming lost in the digital age.  For example, someone who takes the time to compose and send a handwritten note thanking a client or business associate communicates a level of respect and care that’s difficult to duplicate with an e-mail or text.  I've yet to send out a handwritten note or "thank you" to a client (or prospective client) that didn't generate a positive response.   
These are, of course, just my own thoughts, and workflows and handwriting are such intensely personal things that the issue of whether and how it fits into one's life is something that everyone has to address on their own.   

In closing, however, I would like to specifically address one critique in the recent “Freakonomics” podcast episodes addressing the issue of handwriting. (See links below.) I personally find it kind of comical that the anti-handwriting camp attacks and attempts to discredit studies examining the benefits of handwriting because certain of them were supposedly “funded by the pen industry”, which they call "Big Pen" and "Big Pencil".  That may be true, but I really don’t afford it that much weight in the overall scheme of things.  Why? Because most research has to be paid for by somebody, and all of it is biased in some way. Who do you think has funded all of the cited “studies” touting the benefits of “technology in the classroom”, which has become a $8-10 billion industry even though many people question whether technology-focused learning is effective?  I generally prefer to rely on my own experience, which is consistent with the idea that handwriting is more conducive to concentration, focus and serious learning, and that “all-tech, all the time”—despite it’s touted efficiency—more often than not ends up being counterproductive.      

On a Different Note:  Next month I'll look at the benefits of digital, namely when I choose NOT to use analog tools because I think digital is the better choice.  It's a balance, after all.    

Links and Resources

  1. Freakonomics Podcast, "Who Needs Handwriting"? 
  2. Freakonomics Podcast, "How Can This Possibly Be True?"
  3. Philip Hensher, "The Missing Ink:  The Lost Art of Handwriting"
  4. Anne Trubek, "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting"
  5. The Chirographer's Alliance
  6. Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: The Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note-Taking"
  7. Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty, New York Times "Op-Art: The Write Stuff" 
  8. Fast Company, "We're Spending $10 Billion on Kids Classroom Technology, But Does It Help Them Learn?"
  9. The Atlantic, "The Ever Growing Ed-Tech Market"