From the Editor - Making your mark is part of growing up

14th October 2011 at 01:00

When was the last time you hand wrote a letter? How many people bother to scribble on a postcard in the era of instant phone messaging? Handwriting is now confined to the odd shopping list, squashed signatures on the back of credit cards and fraudulent sick notes. On the face of it, we no more need to teach children handwriting than we do quill sharpening or vellum scraping.

So it shouldn't be surprising that some schools have decided to stop teaching it (pages 28-33). As written instruction and response are conducted almost entirely through whiteboards, emails and memory sticks, it seems a logical move. Pupils need to master their keyboard skills if they are to prosper in a digital age, advocates argue. Handwriting is an unnecessary relic. Those children who lack the motor skills to grasp a pen are even liberated by its demise; their imaginations unlocked by a digital key.

All of which is true, but slightly alarming. Can children really do without learning to form letters? Scratching them clumsily at first and gradually joining them up is a painstaking exercise. But to forgo it entirely seems a step too far, like abolishing cheque books or relying on machines rather than humans to launch nuclear missiles. The logic is remorseless, but there is the slight niggle that logic isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

Unsurprisingly, traditionalists aren't convinced. Learning cursive script helps children get to grips with the dodgy orthography of the English language and spurs the brain to process letters and words effectively, they argue. And isn't there something inherently human about an individual's handwriting? To deny children the chance to develop that skill is somehow to deny them an outlet that allows them to express their personalities.

Surprisingly, futurologists aren't over eager to consign handwriting to history, either. As one points out, there is no inevitable future. Keyboards aren't going to be a great deal of use in a tomorrow that lacks electricity. Even if Armageddon isn't just around the corner, we remain fundamentally incapable of conceiving the inconceivable. If the future only consisted of objects we know, teachers would still be teaching kids to daub woad on cave walls and confiscating bows and arrows rather than mobile phones. Banking on one method of communication seems foolish. Far better to develop several and concentrate on what really matters - a child's potential.

But what really disturbs isn't the issue of handwriting per se, but how debates over learning these days so rapidly reduce to utilitarian arguments. Kids need to learn this because they will end up doing that. We seem to think that it's acceptable to teach to a defined point rather than open up a world of possibilities.

If that seems hopelessly hippyish, consider the following: "I decided to take a calligraphy class ... I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me ..." Steve Jobs took up calligraphy because he loved it, not because he knew where it would lead. We should teach handwriting, not because it is useful, but because we don't know where a child's first scrawled letters will ultimately take them ...

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