Handwriting and the electric window.


Styli used in writing in the Fourteenth Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few things I have read recently, plus the fact that there is a reminder on my desk telling me it’s the Corporate Members’ Day of the National Handwriting Association (which we’re part of) coming up, have brought to mind something I’ve written about before – which is the apparent demise of handwriting as a required social and educational skill. Handwriting is no longer taught as a curriculum subject in the USA. Young people in China are losing their calligraphy skills because of increased keyboard and mobile phone use. A Lancashire school was in the news recently for replacing all exercise books and handwritten activities with I Pads (no coloured overlays or tinted exercise books for that school, then…) Where does this lead?

We’ve progressed a long way from the days when  commandments were cut into tablets of rock or hieroglyphs carved on pyramid walls, and no-one writes in copperplate any more; but if “the hand is the instrument of the brain” (Montessori?) what happens to the brain if the dexterity required to express thought is limited to  the use of the thumbs on a smartphone screen?

Without going into detail, it’s well-known that writing reinforces learning through the visual and kinaesthetic channels (as long as understanding is there, of course – but that’s another topic). At the same time, it’s one of the great benefits of our technological age that so much support is now available to people for whom writing is difficult or impossible. But what bothers me in all of this has nothing to do with the socio-educational benefits or otherwise of holding a writing instrument and using it to express ideas. No. What bothers me is the electric window.

Have you ever been driving in the rain, opened the window to press the button on a car park barrier, and found your window stuck open because the motor has failed? Then wished, with all your heart as the rain drives in, for a little chrome handle so you could wind the window up?? What worries me is the idea of a society where we become so dependent on technology that something so fundamental to the human psyche as self-expression needs the agency of a digital device to become manifest. I use the computer all the time, but if you took it away I would still be able to write. I have still got my little chrome window-handle.

We treat our world as if the power behind the mouse will last for ever, and the mobile phone networks were as enduring as the mountains. Just like we thought the banking system was built on something more than parcels of unpaid debt. We need to teach our children to write because what is of real value in society is not the mechanisms that support us, but who we are ourselves: I for one would not like to live in a world where the life – support systems we have created have become stronger than the life itself.