The End of Penmanship?

There was a great segment on CBS Sunday Morning this week, “Is Penmanship Being Written Off?” that explored the fate of handwriting in the age of texting. It’s easy to forget that writing is a technology, one that traditionally operated both as a precursor and in parallel with the technology of print.

I attended a Catholic school in rural Wyoming for most of grade school, and handwriting was a big deal. Good writing, or sloppy writing, was indicative of your character, and poor writing could wind you up in the corner, kneeling on unopened packages of pencils, saying the rosary (at least in Ms. Browning’s 2nd grade class). My writing can be calligraphically neat when I put my mind to it, but it’s generally a bit of a mess. My printing was saved (barely) by a drafting class I took in 10th grade in which I learned machine writing.

My grandmother’s writing was a thing of beauty, and so were the tiny doodles she’d put in the margins of every shopping list. We lost gramma last year, and every time I come across her writing on cards or letters, or on the tiny scraps of paper she’d include with heirlooms and gifts, describing them (“Grampa Brow used this cup for his poker money.”), there’s a pang in my heart and my grief is new again. My mom’s writing is similar, but cleaner and crisper, less joyous than gramma’s, more to the point. My mom’s not a joyless person, but her writing is doing different work than her mother’s. She still hand-writes letters when I’m far from home, and I’ve kept every one of them. One brother’s writing is atrocious, the other’s sharp and abrupt (perhaps a product of his years in the Marines), and dad’s is a bit hurried, and I can recognize each of them instantly.

Much of the work of an historicist scholar is elegiac. We look for lost things, and often fail to find them, and in this age of media change, we find ourselves observing the loss in progress of technologies we hold dear. Book historians are already lamenting the loss of the book. Handwriting, too has it’s advocates and eulogizers. I think it would be a shame if the generation rising now was the last to learn to write by hand. Teachers, banish laptops from your classrooms and make students take notes by hand! Leave a note instead of sending a text. Keep a paper journal instead of a blog (you can transcribe it later, if you can read your own penmanship). And by all means, take the time to write a letter to a friend far away. Long after an email or one of those terrible Facebook wall posts (of which I’m too often guilty: “Happy Birthday! XO”) have been forgotten, a letter can be taken from a drawer and cherished. And in each stroke of your pen on the page, your friend will have a piece of you.


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