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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Adieu handwriting?

Some schools in the state of Indiana, USA, are bidding goodbye to handwriting as an essential and fundamental skill to be acquired by all children during their formative years in favour of texting and typing, says a report in The Times of London, quoted in The Telegraph, Kolkata, 13th July (middle of p.3. I couldn’t find the link on their website). Apparently in 41 of the US states already, it is not compulsory for children to learn to write by hand any more. This may be the beginning of a great new trend, resulting in a world, maybe fifty years or a hundred years from now, where nobody (except a few antiquarians and cranks here and there) will know how to write with a pen any more…

All is flux, said Heraclitus and the Buddha long ago, all things must pass. There were countless skills that took great patience and labour to acquire, but were nevertheless acquired and admired by millions down the ages, and now they are gone. Like how to churn butter or hitch a horse to a wagon, says the report itself. Or swordsmanship and handling sails on a ship or remembering the contents of thousands of books, I may suggest. Even things like painting pictures by hand are on their way to becoming lost arts, and so may be the ability to do arithmetic in one’s own head, if my reading of the situation around me is right. So why not handwriting, indeed? Truth is, I should be happy – being a teacher of language, compelled to read and mark large amounts of text daily, I have nearly worn my eyes out reading the ghastliest of scrawls for nearly thirty years, and computer printouts should be a great deliverance. My old boys tell me that professors in many colleges even in this country are already insisting that assignments be done on computer and sent over by email for correction and marking: it’s so much less of a bother that way. It mightn’t be long before schoolteachers follow suit, and bye bye to carrying huge piles of homework books home and back every day. What a blessed relief that will be. And who writes letters longhand these days anyway? Personally, it won’t be any trouble at all: I have been typing fast since teenage, and already in the mid-1990s I was warning pupils that typewriting would become an essential skill soon. So why should I be upset now?

Yet I must confess I can’t help sighing wistfully. One reason is that I am the type who believe that anything that has been cherished for countless ages is likely to have some intrinsic value, so it should not be lightly forgotten, especially when the replacement is no great shakes (think: contact lenses have not been able to replace the spectacles which have been around for centuries, and despite the electronic music board, millions are still learning how to play real musical instruments – why?). Another is that, as some scholars, researchers and thinkers have already pointed out (and this has been mentioned in the report itself), any skill like good handwriting (or doing sums quickly and accurately in the head) which takes years of patient labour to acquire has strong beneficial effects on the human brain, which may be lamented only when they are lost – as a lot of people are already lamenting the demise of systematic drilling in grammar during the school years! A third reason is (and I say this though I am not as sentimental as some much younger people are) there is something personal and sincere about handwritten communication that can simply not be duplicated if the same is done via computer and internet. But the most important reason of all is that I fear that – leaving aside communications of a strictly business nature, such as office files and legal documents – all communication via computer and mobile phone is likely to be of a far more trivial, superficial and ephemeral nature, of no lasting value, unlike things written by hand. It is not just an irrelevant coincidence that a lot of successful professional writers prefer to write longhand even in this day and age, and one cannot imagine people of today writing letters like Chesterfield or Keats or Tagore (Chhinnopotro) or Churchill via keyboard or keypad. If that is not a loss to civilization, tell me what is (provided you have any idea what I am talking about)? I may not be so bitter and melodramatic as the commentator in the Wall Street Journal who writes ‘…it presages a further hollowing out of the human personality, a further colonization of the human mind by the virtual at the expense of the real’, but I am both sad and worried nevertheless. I belong to a generation which is equally at home with handwriting and typewriting, but think of entire generations of children being educated without ever wielding a pencil!

Whether you think that the supersession of handwriting will or will not be a great leap forward, do let me hear your views.

21 comments:

Parijat Roy said...

Sir,
There is just one advantage... Staff-rooms will not be as untidy with hundreds of copies and workbooks left around here and there, as they generally remain.
But, the disadvantages(pertaining to schools) are:
1.Every student must carry laptop to school to take notes because he does not know how to write.
2.Every teacher must be made accustomed to how to use a computer so that s/he can provide notes.
3.There will be students who will lose or damage their laptops in school(compare to tiffin boxes and pencil boxes that generally get lost in school).
4.There will be a highly secured 'lost and found' room for lost laptops, in every institution(though I don't feel anybody will be interested to return if they find one).
5.There has to be an able hardware engineer in every school and college, who will fix problems in laptops as soon as they occur or else, students won't be able to take further notes.
6.It strikes me to think how will students write the alphabet without knowing basics in computers(like opening a particular file)!!!

Shilpi said...

Trust you to come up with a news item about the state that I’m supposedly sitting in. I have to wonder which planet I’m on. I really should read newspapers or some news websites. I’m most ashamed and embarrassed.

I’ve got one part that’s saying that this is an infernally dumb idea and another part that’s simply perplexed (the sighing comes later and in spasms). How would such a thing work? Never to know how to write with a pencil or a pen?

…Typing is faster sometimes (even for ‘butterfingers’ like me) and it’s a relief not to have to read handwriting that’s just plain ghastly or in ‘print’ (because many children weren’t ever taught longhand or cursive) which is sometimes all caps or the oddest mixture of caps and god knows what. But I keep going back to that thought…never to know how to wield a pen or a pencil (well, I’ll leave out swords and the sails...and carrying books in one’s head)…? It just seems plain bizarre to me unless it sounds supremely daft. And yet people have forgotten how to spell words and do mental math…and grammar, I shouldn’t talk about.

And I’ll not say that I’m not glad about the word processor which lets people write academic stuff and all. I can’t imagine even trying to type matter (without being able to shift things around, delete this, bring that here…)when people had to even use a typewriter…but maybe even that’s to do with average human brains getting remarkably stupid in some ways.

My sighing comes regarding writing in journals and writing letters. There really is something else about handwritten diaries and receiving/composing handwritten letters. It’s as though a part of the human being is present on those sheets through those written words…and it’s not just the words; it’s the visual shape of the words, the slant, the angularity, the formation, the hurried rush of some letters or the slower curves. There’s something very vital and living and personal about it and something indefinable. And I’d go towards agreeing that writing has some different sort of an influence in how a human being thinks…

On the other hand, it’s true that one cannot imagine an average person of today writing letters like Tagore or Keats or Chesterfield on a keyboard. I had to race through some letters by Keats (he really sounds quite mad, I must say - purplue?!) and Chesterfield before commenting…and I’ve only read the translation of Tagore's Chhinnapatro, and I don't think letters of that sort can be typed out but I’d say that that’s also because average people can’t write and because they have nothing to write about and maybe they don’t have any worthwhile thoughts to write about. An old friend used to type long letters to someone I know, and they really would qualify as being great letters and interesting letters but they probably just sit on somebody’s bookshelf.

This was a very good read. Witty, amusing, connective and makes one ponder. Thank you.

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

You wouldn't believe it but just a couple of days ago we were discussing this during lunch. There's one undergraduate who found this quite 'cool'. He also finds the latest Macbook, the video-chatting feature on Facebook and Google+ cool. I'd either learnt from some newspaper article or while chatting with you at your house that writing is essential to developing cognitive skills.

I completely understand the advantages of using a laptop (my handwriting, as you know, is so bad that I sometimes have trouble reading my own notes). Introducing a laptop at a later stage might be good. But doing away with pen, paper and pencil, to me, is really unsettling. A few days ago I started scribbling random words in Hindi on a piece of paper since it had been a long long time since I'd written anything in it. I occasionally get the chance to leave a note to someone not at his desk or submit the occasional homework (though they contain less words and more symbols) in English, so my craving to write something in English isn't too bad.

I probably wouldn't want to trade the experience of learning how to write with a fountain pen for anything else. Filling the pen up, breaking a few nibs before getting the angle just right, spreading ink all over the notebook and occasionally getting the cursive writing just right, are all part of the experience. Lastly, if we do away with pens for good, how do we explain to future generations the meaning of the adage: a pen is mightier than the sword?

Sincerely
Nishant.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

"The keyboard is mightier than the assault rifle", perhaps, Nishant?

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

Sir,
This news came across as a 'shock' to me . Ever since childhood, my handwriting has been praised time and again by teachers,friends and relatives and my handwriting skills have been an element of pride for me . Though i have no problems in typing , this sudden good bye to hand writing is deeply unsettling to my mind . I hope that this sample of "modernization" does not reach India too soon !

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

I cannot understand this frantic craze to undo all the good qualities that the human race has acquired over the ages.Einstein once said- "Why should I memorize stuff that can be looked up in a book?".Without understanding a bit of what he meant,we will now preach-"Why write when we can type?".I feel such decisions won't make Einstein out of us but it would surely accelerate our retardation.

Let's take the example of introduction of multiple choice questions in examinations at all levels.I am sure it wasn't done for improvement of standards.It was and is just a shortcut measure to shed the burden of paper correction.Now,basic things such as handwriting is our target and God knows what else awaits us in the future.Maybe,in future,we won't waste our energy by talking-it will be done by some machine.We will just sit like a vegetable and let something else do everything for us(perhaps even going to the loo).Everyone will be giving thumb impression instead of signature-there is no need for distinction between literacy and illiteracy.But future generation movie stars and cricketers will surely envy their predecessors- nobody will be craving anymore for their autographs.

I remember once you said that it is an era of specialization where we know more and more of less and less until we end up knowing everything about nothing.We are now determined to achieve such specialization in every possible way.

With regards,
Saikat

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

I suspect this might be a little out of context, but do read it nonetheless: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/magazine/the-twitter-trap.html?_r=1&ref=magazine

Thanks,
Joydeep

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Not out of context at all, Joydeep, but both relevant and riveting. Thanks very much indeed for the link, and I do hope a lot of my readers look it up.
Sir

Sunup said...

Sir,

A very thought-provoking post indeed! I suppose our human mind/mentality is slowly mutating. What else to say. The link provided by Joydeep was too good. And the comments section for that particular article was also too good to read. Excellent debates on the article, with points of view well constructed and put forth. To be frank I never thought American readers were this good. So there is still hope for humanity :). Compared to that just look up the posts (especially in yahoo news, indiatimes, and so on) which have a lot of Indian comments -- you'll find a mix of sms language, vulgarity, Hinglish, and arguments that are no where relevant to the discussion at hand. And the so called moderators don't even block them.

Regards,

Sunup

nkr said...

Sir,

the nytimes article is very nice indeed and almost all it says is correct and solid. And yet, like many others, the author refers to calculation as math skills. While the ability to compute in one's head is an important skill, and develops the brain, it is not exactly skill at Mathematics. Math is about abstract patterns and ideas, and there is something definitely abstract about working with numbers, yet to reduce all math skills to that is not right. There is another comment about spotting patterns in data (and the contemporary loss of it) and that sounds much
more like loss of Mathematical skill.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, absolutely, Nirman. Mere calculative prowess is certainly not coterminous with mathematical skill - I know very well that lots of truly great math wizards could never pass the CAT for admission to the IIMs! However, 'spotting patterns in data' is not the exclusive preserve of mathematicians either: detectives can do it, and chess grandmasters can do it, and great writers can do it, and politicians can do it, in ways that mathematicians cannot dream of. There are different kinds of data, and different kinds of patterns, and different kinds of 'spotting'. Recall Einstein saying that the toughest thing he ever handled in his life was filling in an income tax form!

Anyway, this is all slightly beside the point. This post was about handwriting, and about loss of that skill...

Rajdeep said...

Sir,
Since more than half the world cannot afford laptops yet, it will be quite some time before such fears come true.
Also, even for existing technologies, most people in advanced countries cannot afford them either! We have heard so many times how robots can take care of elderly humans etc. etc. Even in an advanced country like Japan, most people are not able to afford such robots. So old age homes are still the best option for many ...
But they make for fascinating fairy tale like articles of robots serving humans and living together.
Rajdeep

Shilpi said...

No, but many children these days really do not have to learn handwriting, Rajdeep. It's about regular children who go to school in the US. And this is not about robots. Computers already exist. How many homes don't have a PC is the question because schools which get funded well have computers on the premise. And the thing is, handwriting being seen as a central part of education and the school curriculum has for a while been suffering. Many children in their late teens and early twenties can only print or feel more comfortable about printing because they weren't taught cursive/longhand writing in the schools they attended. This part I do know. And true enough, if the world cranks along for another century or so it might end up being the 'educated' classes (who go to 'better' schools) who can never write...and so?

...but more than all that it's the thought (lack of?) behind the plan. The thought. That writing by hand is not necessary. That it can be discarded. After reading this essay, I found some comments by parents who half-humorously pointed out, 'and how is my child going to sign a cheque or even his name...?''So the disreputable 'x' which signified ignorance is now going to be the height of being educated - eh?'....

Rajdeep said...

Some additional information.
There is a digital drawing pad that is a rage in many markets. It is mainly for artists who draw sketches. It is basically a touch screen tablet with a sophisticated stylus. It is great for artists and does not require any paper. In this case, it is ultimately the skill of the artist. We also have handwriting recognition enabled tablets that can be used with computers. Mobile phones with that technology are available even in India. But since technology is not yet so developed, one does need to have a fairly decent handwriting for the machine to recognize the letters! Hoping probably that handwriting will still be in use with wonderful gadgets like these?

Soham MUkhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
I recall something about handwriting by reading this article. When Mahatma Gandhi stayed in South Africa- he was awestruck by seeing the handwriting of the British men there. Hence, he said that "a person's handwriting reflects the quality of education he have had." I'm not sure about the exact words what Gandhiji said- but I remember vividly what he meant to say. I read this thing about Gandhiji in my childhood. Hence, if we say goodbye to handwriting, what may we say about our education? Handwriting is an art.We should try to preserve it rather than neglecting it.

Krishanu Sadhu said...

Sir,
There are a few technical difficulties in abolishing hand-writing altogether :
1) It is quite cumbersome to do math using a keyboard . In other science subjects too , writing formulae and equations etc digitally is quite a formidable task.

2) If one does not learn how to write on paper , it is expected that he will not be able to draw figures properly. So any kind of sketch making , be it in biology or physics , will have to be taken off the syllabus . So learning of science subjects seems to be affected a lot... not a great idea for technological progress after all!

If doing away with handwriting actually takes place , well , I think only trees should be happy. Humans have no particular reason to be glad.

Thanks,
Krishanu .

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Suvro was famous for his beautiful handwriting (among other things) in school. Both his English and Bangla handwriting were very matured - looked like coming from a person who was quite advanced in these skills and had years of experience.

This discussion reminds me again of the dinosaurs we really are. Writing was all by pencils till grades four/five. Then the momentous and exciting transition to - fountain pens. Don't know if anyone from the present generation has even seen one. Blue marks in fingers, leaky pen accidents in suitcases, refilling accidents during nervous moments in exams - oh what fun and excitement. Ball point pens or dot pens were becoming popular during the last years in school. Though they helped write faster, the quality of writing wasn't like that of fountain pens. We were advised to avoid them.

Saw a discussion on a topic somewhat similar to the theme of this post. In the article Is Google Really Wrecking Our Memory? the writer makes some points on how using Google may be affecting our memory and retention. Says our "brains are being rewired". Hmmm .... sounds scarily exciting.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, don 't take Subhasis seriously, anybody: he wears rose-tinted glasses when reminiscing about our shared boyhood.

But yes, some of those reminiscences are pleasant indeed. And the article made good reading, though the writer is non-committal on the subject. What I keep wondering is whether, given that all 'knowledge' is now just a few mouse-clicks away, all knowledge-based professions, such as those of doctors, lawyers and teachers, will become obsolete by and by?

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Reading this post I was reminded about the excitement of a new exercise book, a sharpened pencil, erasers and cartoon figure sharpners that never really did the job; the excitement of picking up new pencil boxes. These memories are an intrinsic part of childhood and on a slightly varied note, it seems sad not to grow up with such memories which is probably what will happen if writing long hand peters out.

I remember my resolutions at the start of every term to maintain pristine exercise books. All of the things you said sir, ink blotches on the fingers, Hero fountain pens, teachers rapping us up when we tried to scrawl our way through a really long lesson or passage. We nineties kids became familiar with computers pretty early. Kids these days get the hang of typing earlier still but it will not replace the joys of writing the traditional way in schools. I sometimes find myself searching for reasons to write something with a pen other than just to-do lists. The link provided for Joydeep was illuminating. The author says in the end that his concern is more about the soul. I think he is right. People may come up with a dozen reasons why a total convert to technology is the best way to go forward, but, I just cannot reconcile to it. Maybe it is the same reason why I still cannot stomach a kindle. I have an awful feeling that at this rate, with this desperate need to do everything at lightening speed, the human race is going to implode. Then who has the last joke?

Regards,
Vaishnavi

aranibanerjee said...

Sir,
I remember that you had told us that compete only with Gandhi when it comes to handwriting. In fact, I was delighted that I finally had a teacher who did not think too much about my bad handwriting. But, that was way back in 1996-97 when I was very young, just a schoolboy. A few years later, after going to Calcutta, I wrote a letter to you and you wrote back in Bengali--without a single English expression! And, I still have that letter along with a few others that we'd exchanged. Handwriting, has a tremendous 'archival' value. Would we like to preserve typescripts of Gandhi or Tagore? What would be so unique about such preservation? Where will identity go to make way for uniformity, legibility and clarity? This brings to my mind the whole issue of form. Would there be any charm in stories if grandma's were not to tell them? It surprises me that in a post-modern age when 'telling' is as important as 'showing', why do we have to lose out on something so blatantly and delightfully formal as handwriting?
Warm regards,
Arani

Shilpi said...

I can't help sending this BBC link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22157892

Here's a prof from a Research I Univ saying there's no time for kids to learn writing, that writing is not even related to cognition (learning one foreign language means one has no time to learn handwriting; printing and typing are enough?)...I don't even know how one can argue against such obtuse statements like these. I wonder whether these are the kinds of younger professors who infest the universities these days. It's a good thing that the state representative and the principal show better sense.