The Story of How Handwriting Evolved, and May Soon Die Off (From the NY Times)

THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek ­traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.

Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.

Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.

“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.

Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.

A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”

How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.

“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.

What I Learned At Easter Brunch: the times they are a-changing

IBM SelectricAt Easter brunch, I learned that a 15 lb, 3-month-old baby is too heavy for these ancient arms. I learned that a grade 3-er doesn’t read cursive writing, except her name, which she can proudly sign. I learned that a 30 year-old is baffled by the expression “ham it up” and others, which astonished elders then trotted out to further bafflement. I learned that this same young man can solve a computer problem that I have struggled over for at least an hour in a split second. I relearned that even the grade 3-er spends half her time face down to her device – a tablet, as did those 20 and 30 with their smart phones.

I already knew that my 19-year-old grandson, who was having Easter brunch across the continent, had a problem telling time on a non-digital clock and my 28-year-old grandson prefers to print rather than write. Although he must have also more or less mastered his signature – to be a doctor. That can be blamed on the “hippie” school he went to in Los Angeles. I have heard about an 18-year-old who went to apply for his passport and couldn’t sign his name. There is an ad posted in my doctor’s office for private lessons in cursive writing. My sister, Georgia says that curriculum is so demanding these days that teachers can’t give much time to practice, although cursive is still taught in the school she knows best.

In the spirit of cultural exchange, I recalled to a 20-something, my progress from straight pen and ink well to fountain pen. She knew about fountain pens, but had never much considered there was a time before the ball point pen or biro as the Brits say. She had never heard about the dastardly male-child practice of dipping the braids of the girl in the desk in front into his inkwell. She obviously had never been chosen for the momentous task of filling the ink wells. She had missed the joys of ink splatters and blotting paper. I inevitably got marked down for messy writing. We were allowed fountain pens eventually and I got one when I graduated from grade 8. And lost it in early grade 9.

The computer whizz recalled that first they had to write their essays in cursive and then they were forbidden to. In fact, even I experienced the shift to typed-only essays in my night school courses, a major pain since I had deliberately not taken typing so that my father couldn’t make me quit school to work in an office. In addition, school secretaries no longer typed material for teachers – cost cutting started in the 70s. The typewriter with corrective ribbon -an IBM Selectric- came along to save me. I could barely lift it.  I learned to type one-handed, 3-fingered, quite fast, as I am doing now – while looking at the keys. My first Apple desk top computer in 1992 was a dream come true, of course no corrective ribbon, but “delete” and “undo” and “copy” and “paste”.

The conversation at brunch moved to the study of key board/ typing skills. Mostly, it doesn’t seem to be happening. It is assumed that one way or another kids have those skills once they get to high school. So much for QWERTY. The little finger may become vestigial.

The 50-year-olds watched cartoons from the thirties as children and learned old-fashioned expressions then or from Andy Rooney pictures. The 30-year-olds are more apt to have learned expressions from Rooney Mara, whose tattooed girl had computer chops they can admire.

My own colloquial history, alas, goes back to the 19th century. My grandparents were born at the end of it, and dragged their parents’ language from mid-century in to my early life in the late 30s. One internet citing traces “ham it up” to a mid 19th century touring theatre group in the U.S. led by a man named Ham, and given, I suppose, to exaggerated gestures and bombast. (The 19th century means 1800 to 1899, by the way.)

Sorry if that note is offensive, but yesterday I told someone that one of my grandsons is in California, the other in Massachusetts and she asked if they were far apart.

Earlier I remarked to a friend about the beautiful robin song we could hear and she said, “Is that a robin? I don’t know bird calls.”

What is the world …… etc?

It’s Earth Day. It wasn’t called that in 1949. It was called Arbour Day and we were herded outside with rakes and other implements of mutual destruction to clean up the school yard and we were jolly well expected to know the birds we heard there and the trees we raked under and the bushes and even the bloody weeds.

Okay. Times change. Catch up girl.

I dislike the way the French police their language. The number of French words in use – so quick research tells me is about 43,000. Samuel Johnson’s 2 volume English dictionary of 1755 had about the same number -of English words. Today’s Complete Oxford Dictionary, 20 volumes, has over 200,000 and some estimates put the number of English words even higher. The amazing thing about our language – you are reading this in it after all, so it’s ours- is its adaptability. We accommodate change and even embrace it. (I do still bristle at “grow our business”, having the old idea that you can grow carrots but not businesses.)

True, for over 30 years, I was in the business of holding the line on grammatical structure. I had that mandate, but I didn’t like it much. I saw that sentence fragments could be the best way for students to express an idea, for example. I red-penned errors that made a sentence incomprehensible, but I may have let down standards otherwise.

Talking to Georgia, I said wealth distribution is changing so that a small percentage of people -1%?- have most of it and I think there is a similar disparity between the percentage of people who read and those who don’t, between the intellectual and the non-idea people. Of course they are not at all the same group. In fact, apart from Conrad Black, the 1% and the readers seem exclusive of each other. (I know, really, me bad, as the kids now say. Dumbed down from my bad. Even dumbness can be dumbed down.)

I failed to transmit my knowledge and love of the King James Bible and the Anglican liturgy to my children. I made a stab at it by giving my bar mitsva-ed grandson the King James Bible and he used it as a literary resource. The younger one eats up marketing books. He believes strongly in the necessity of being cultured, but his definition differs from mine. He seems to mean “becoming fully human”.

Looking at my past, I see that apparently, I don’t want to set our culture in stone but I am uneasy with the rapid change I observe. I suspect that my uneasiness comes from the fact that I am cut off from what is replacing it, out of touch, a relic of a bygone age. Except at Easter brunch.