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The writing is on the wall - for the moment

September 2013

I suppose it’s inevitable that whilst computers undoubtedly do some good they have also promoted some unwelcome decay.  Take, for example, the decline in handwriting.

I noticed this first in myself when I was trying to decipher some notes I had written in a meeting only few days earlier, parts of them I just couldn’t read at all.  It’s not just the creeping arthritis in my thumbs (which doesn’t help), it’s more that my fingers seem to have forgotten how to do it properly.

Then, as it happens, I had to write a note to a bereaved friend, and reached for my fountain pen and notepaper.  My first effort was lovely prose, but looked as if it were written by a spider that had fallen into an inkwell.  I had another go, feeling like a schoolboy called in at break to write lines; I copied it out slowly and carefully until I finally produced something that I could send.

The truth is I am out of practice, and it’s all the fault of the computer.  During a recent day spent entirely at my desk I wrote several thousand words but I picked up a pen only three times; once to sign a letter and twice to make quick notes whilst on the phone.

That evening I took a short poll of the ten grey haired members of our PCC and discovered that almost all of them had noticed the same shrivelling of their handwriting skills, most citing email as the villain.  The exception was a farmer who doesn’t use a computer, leaving that chore to his wife and son, so his handwriting skills remain undimmed and ready for action.

Then I thought: when did I last fill in a form by hand?  I couldn’t remember; these days it’s done either online or on a form I can type into.  I only seem to send hand written letters after someone has died, and not always then.

So why do we need handwriting?  Because it’s good for us, that’s why.  For example, it’s certain that learning to write helps children learn to read.  I checked the national curriculum with some apprehension, but was relieved to see that it still includes joined-up (cursive) handwriting (click here to read it).

I hope they find time to actually teach it; if you don’t learn to write using handwriting, you must surely struggle to read handwriting.  Indeed, there was an extraordinary moment in a recent high profile trial in America when an adult witness was asked to read out a handwritten letter in court.  She declined, saying “I don’t read cursive”.

It’s not really surprising.  I understand that 45 US states have opted to leave it up to individual schools to decide if they want to teach joined up handwriting, and most don’t bother.  It’s the thin end of the wedge; if you stop teaching joined up handwriting, can giving up teaching all handwriting be far behind?  Especially depressing when you recall that, culturally, where America leads we always follow, eventually.   Indeed, I was unhappy to read that an otherwise excellent charity which promotes digital skills, , is already suggesting dropping handwritten exams and replacing them with an online assessment.

Learning handwriting is, I would argue, at least as important as learning to ride a bike or to swim; you may not need it all the time, but when you do need it, you really need it.

What’s more, you’ll never find a child who can write but can’t read.  However, as we lash ourselves more and more to computers, and as speech recognition software improves, accurately transcribing dictation, I begin to have a black vision of a whole generation who can read but can’t write by hand. 

The writing is on the wall.  But it may not be for much longer.