3Qs: The end of handwriting perhaps, but not writing

Indiana recently became the latest state to remove the require­ment for its schools to teach hand­writing, leading to the debate over whether cur­sive is out­dated in our dig­ital society or a crit­ical com­po­nent of youth learning. We asked Neal Lerner, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of Eng­lish and the director of the Writing Center at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, to weigh in.

Neal Lerner, asso­ciate pro­fessor of Eng­lish and the director of the Writing Center. PHOTO: Christopher Huang / Northeastern University

How do you feel about the trend in public education to drop the requirement to teach handwriting?

I’m left-handed and always had terrible penmanship ever since elementary school, so handwriting instruction never quite worked for me. The most important thing about writing, however, is not the handwriting but rather what you write and how that writing represents you. That can be done by hand, by computer or dictating into a recorder. It’s not about the mechanics or the form of the letters.

When I think about why teachers made us write with cursive, I don’t think it was about individuality. Individuality, expression, self-discovery and other good things that are tied to writing can come about no matter how you’re doing it.

How does technology play a role in this trend?

Handwriting, like typing, is a form of technology. I learned to type in the 8th grade, and loved it for more than handwriting instruction because it sped up my processes of writing. Any technology that allows someone to control the process of writing is a good thing. When I got serious about writing, particularly fiction writing, I used to do all my drafting by hand on legal pads and then type it up in the afternoon though now I compose directly on the computer. I know fiction writers who still write everything out by hand because it allows them to connect their brains to their pens in a certain way. But that’s all about process.

There’s always the good and bad about technology. With the introduction of the telegraph, back in the late 19th century, there was the same hand-wringing, “it’s-the-end-of-the-world” arguments that are almost word-for-word what you hear now about texting and smartphones. There’s a resistance to technology wired into our culture because it is different, will change how we do things and could mean we will lose something. But does the technology actually allow people to communicate in different and perhaps better ways? What kind of learning is the technology enabling? Those are the key questions to ask in my view.

By not requiring students to learn cursive, does this mean kids won’t be able to sign their names?

Did you have the experience as a kid of signing your name over and over again? I think kids will continue this practice. It took me years to master my own squiggle. As long as there’s the John Hancock story, I don’t see any reason why kids and adults will stop practicing their signatures. You can even choose a computer font that looks like handwriting.

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