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.