The End of Handwriting as Communication

Communication Education Generations Ideas and Issues

            Pearl River     My handwriting has always been bad, and, to tell the truth, it’s has steadily gotten worse over time.  What was sort of rounded in my youth, but at least legible, has become more angular and abbreviated as the years pile up and my hurried writing has, if anything, sped up even more.  Sometimes I have to catch myself for fear I won’t be able to read my own writing.  I used to make a joke about all of this with associates, telling them the only subjects where I routinely got bad marks in school were behavior and handwriting, which sadly was the unvarnished truth.

Frankly, I never saw it as a big problem.  Office managers in the early ACORN days were clear with me:  type everything!  No problem.  My mother had enrolled my brother and me in some kind of quickie typing course over a few weeks one summer, and we’d gotten the hang of it.  Over the years, in the way that “repetition is the mother of invention,” it also creates blazing speed on the keyboard, even if less than perfect accuracy.  Schooled on manual typewriters, some complain that I hit the keys too hard and that the sound is distracting.  Whatever.

Writing inscriptions in my books for bright-eyed and smiling purchasers, it was embarrassing, though I made light of it, when some would bravely come back to me and ask me to read what I had written, I would quickly blame my handwriting.  Recently reading a piece by historian and former Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust in The Atlantic, I now wonder if the problem was less me, than the fact that my eager reader in fact didn’t know how to read cursive.  Handwriting might have become for many of them some kind of mysterious and inaccessible language.

Professor Faust tells the story of how she was caught by surprise in a recent undergrad seminar at Harvard where the student reporting on a book mentioned that one of the downsides was the fact that some of the illustrations of old documents were in cursive, and he couldn’t read it.  Faust, surprised, couldn’t believe her ears and asked the class, and two-thirds of them couldn’t read cursive and, what’s more, had kind of invented their own signatures, when forced to handwrite.  Researching the issue, she reported that,

In 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in “keyboarding” assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world.

Being unable to read handwriting will be part of the Generation Z legacy.  Faust believes, given technological change, that it’s inevitable, and she’s likely right on the mark on that, despite the fact that twenty states, trying as usual to stem the tide of change, have passed legislation mandating that cursive be taught.  She imagines a world in which there will only be scholars who learn to read and write cursive as a rare skill in order to read old documents.  Faust wondered how many notes and comments that she had written on student papers went unheeded and lost to the youngster, because they just didn’t know how to read cursive in what they might term classic communications fail.

Now I feel bad for even those brave souls who will face even higher mountains to climb if they try to read what some of us, OK, I’m clearly talking about myself here, whose handwriting started out bad and has blithely proceeded to get worse, wrote in notebooks, journals, and daily correspondence.  Who knew that I might have been mastering a personal encryption system every time I put pen to paper?