An article in a recent Sunday Review section of The New York Times entitled Handwriting Just Doesn't Matter Anymore raised a bit of sadness within me. It argues that the ability to type is a more employable skill than handwriting. Therefore, according to the author, schools should not bother teaching children cursive penmanship. In essence, due to technology, we have progressed beyond good penmanship and cursive writing. Educators, the author argues, should not waste much of their early school curriculum dollars on teaching children the art of writing. Putting aside the politics of this issue, is there a price we pay as a society for discarding the ability to write well?
We live in an age where the quality of personal communication is at an all-time low. Few individuals can hold an engaging personal conversation without punctuating it with profanity. Even in formal presentations by business and political leaders, there is a drastic decline in the ability to use language well. We've seen the same decline in popular music. Well-crafted lyrics have given way to coarsely worded raps laced with vulgarity. Yet, it's all considered sophisticated, adult and 'real.'
Business professionals see a worrisome decline in the writing skills of college graduates. It's a loss that has real implications for business communication. Now, add to that the view that acquiring handwriting skills is a waste of class hours. What does this portend for our future quality of life?
In both Japan and China, young people rely heavily on digital devices for written communication. Japanese kanji and Chinese hànzì writing systems both require the memorization of thousands of characters. Young people in both countries are losing the ability to write, developing what has been called "character amnesia." They rarely write the classic characters of their language because of their dependence on the simplified character sets adopted for computer keyboards.
"Tokyo student Maya Kato, 22, said: "I hardly hand-write anymore, which is the main reason why I have forgotten so many characters." Forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability, says Siok Wai Ting, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University.
While English writing relies upon a much simpler character set, could we see a similar problem develop as we rely more on digital devices for communication?
As a graphic/web designer, I owe much to taking up Calligraphy as a personal hobby in my late teens. Calligraphy is the art of fine writing. It demands rigorous repetition and careful study of classic letterforms to develop proficiency in Calligraphy. However, through that training, I also acquired a sense of taste, balance, and beauty that became the foundation of my visual design skills. Calligraphy trains the eye and hand to identify and create beautiful letterforms and page layouts. I would never have become a skilled web designer were it not for that foundation. Dependence on computer technology can often short-circuit the development of a sense of taste, style and presentation that are essential elements in good design.
Another benefit I gained from Calligraphy is an appreciation for the slow process of learning and refinement. You make significant improvements in calligraphic writing with years of practice. That taught me to enjoy the process of learning. I've come to enjoy the learning curve that comes with photography, cooking, and other skill sets that demand a considerable investment in time and practice to master. Technology often makes the false promise that things can be achieved quickly by pushing a button or two. Developing good penmanship teaches us the rigors of the learning process.
I am convinced that good handwriting, like good manners, enhances our quality of life. It may not contribute directly to our employability. However, it makes our interaction with people and society at large a better experience. Handwriting does matter!