Hand-Wringing Over Handwriting

It improves cognitive function and socialization. And it's all but gone from our schools.
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It improves cognitive function and socialization. And it's all but gone from our schools.
(Photo: Essl/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Essl/Shutterstock)

If you want to gauge in earnest just how divorced education has become from the simple practice of handwriting, here is an experiment. On the first day of a college course in elementary composition, try starting the class with a “little freehand writing exercise.” From the general demeanor of the room (mere stupefaction if you're lucky), an observer might imagine you had asked them to recite the Gettysburg Address in Aramaic. Friendly whispers will ensue, followed by the sound of respectful paper-tearing as a handful of apparent antique-enthusiasts furnish their classmates with a sheet or two. The exercise will then proceed in peaceable fashion.

“One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains.”

This is an embellishment but not entirely an exaggeration. In my own classrooms, and to the credit of my students, I have yet to see a mutiny—even when I declare a ban on laptops for significant stretches of the semester. Like most of their peers across the nation, these young scholars are required to arrive on campus with a computer (and the university provides thousands each year for those who cannot afford one). Only a hardened neo-Victorian would bemoan this arrangement. But personal computing and Web-research and furtive meme-hunting (I understand; lectures get boring) need not be incompatible with a modest foundational fluency in taking notes in pen and ink. When we lose that fluency, we lose a great deal else besides.

The truth for many of these students is that no one ever taught them cursive (let alone something like shorthand), and note-taking is thereby all the slower, even without the comparison to typing. But the problem is of much wider ambit. Dysgraphia—genetically determined—already slows development in certain children it affects, especially the development of memory-skills; meanwhile we are speedily removing the expectation that non-dysgraphic children will receive any practical instruction in a fairly delicate motor skill. The resulting developmental deficiencies can mimic the dysgraphic symptom model, and cognitive scientists are building a consensus that this failure of conditioning will probably hold kids back.

In his 1999 book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Frank R. Wilson offers an emphatic argument that our brain development depends in no small way on what we do with our hands. The New York Times' reviewer may have caviled a bit with Wilson's interview methods, but recent scholarship has more or less borne out Wilson's thrust. Nancy Darling, professor of psychology at Oberlin, summarizes the growing consensus:

Using our hands requires the development of particular areas of the brain. That's true when we are learning to use a tool, like our ancestors wielding an axe. It's true when we learn to play the piano. It's true when we learn to write. It's true when we learn to sew or play with blocks. One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains. This, in turn, requires our brains to develop in new ways.

The benefits of writing by hand, and doing so from a young age, are fundamental: improved and sustained development in social skills, hand-eye coordination, long-term memory. And when one considers “fluency” in its literal sense, it makes sense that cursive especially can energize a more fluid and coherent process of thought. Certain researchers refer to “shallower processing” among students who take notes only on their laptops—and this is apart from “multitasking,” sports-score-checking, G-chatting, and other such distractions. Writing this past April in Psychological Science, Pam Muller and Daniel Oppenheimer offer strong support for such an argument. The nub: “transcrib[ing] lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” These results build on—indeed, help confirm—a related study by Steven Peverly and his team at Columbia in 2012.

Addressing this problem in the Times, Maria Konnikova asks psychologist Stanislas Dehaene about what we lose in neglecting proper handwriting (including cursive) among early-elementary students:

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

(Konnikova also reminds us that the Common Core requires the teaching of “legible handwriting” but just in kindergarten and first grade.)

“With typing, you can go fast, but you have to make sure you pay attention enough to determine what’s important about what you are hearing,” Peverly has said. “Good note-taking isn’t simply about trying to take down all the information. It’s also a filtering process, a way of zeroing in on what’s most important.” This is the difference between a critical mode of note-taking and something more rote, something more like transcription.

Certain of the first American students to suffer this pronounced shift away from the pen are now in graduate school, and Professor Valerie Hotchkiss has seen its deleterious effects on archival research. Besides other duties at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, Hotchkiss oversees the school's formidable collection of rare books and manuscripts and reports troubling episodes such as the following:

Recently, an undergraduate asked me for help with a manuscript she was studying. I assumed it was something along the lines of a medieval Latin text or perhaps even a particularly difficult Marcel Proust letter (our library holds the largest collection of Proust letters in the world), but when I bent over the letter to help, I saw that it was in English and in the very neat, clear hand of John Ruskin. “What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t do cursive,” answered the undergraduate.

The effects, which Hotchkiss describes in terms both poignant and practical, will estrange us from whole realms of our own history:

[Such students] will not even be able to read their grandmother’s diary or their parents’ love letters. An informal survey of rare-book librarians and archivists indicates that our experience at Illinois is not uncommon. Research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges. When the ability to read cursive disappears, our connection to history—and even to our own past—is lost.

Hand-wringing over handwriting—an easy way to characterize recent obituaries for children's study of cursive. Of course cursive is disappearing, one thinks. Typing is faster, and our words look immediately more impressive when they appear before us in a bookish font. Cursive is slower, it is a precious exercise in nostalgia, it is the residue of a 19th-century gentleman's education. To some, the teaching of handwriting—visions of yellowed, triple-staved worksheets—seems about as relevant as needlepoint or bookbinding or the Dewey Decimal System. Lamenting its demise is an act of antiquarian sentimentalism. (Never mind that it remains the only medium that the NSA cannot tap.)

But our brains need cursive—and it is negligence to deny it.

So laugh as much as you want. Circa 2060, upon the discovery of Thomas Jefferson's erotic poetry or Queen Victoria's lost letters or some other such historical gem, it would be nice if someone were around who could read it.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.