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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword … But Not the Keyboard?

September 19, 2009

mygreeting
When I was working for Greg Wills on his history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, I had to painstakingly decipher hundreds of handwritten letters composed by the likes of James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, William H. Whitsitt, A. T. Robertson, and E. Y. Mullins.  Each of these writing styles proved to be challenging reads for different reasons.  Boyce and Broadus used many archaic and exuberant terminology foreign to my limited 21st century vocabulary.  Whitsitt’s script was considerably small and detailed, making it sometimes difficult to identify specific letters and phrases.  Mullins’ writing style was especially wordy, often requiring him to spend many pages to formulate his points.  And A. T. Robertson’s form can only be described as chicken scratch, so whenever possible, I sought to pass his letters off to one of my fellow workers, Brandon Nygaard or John Randolph (I really love you guys!).

I invoke these examples to make the simple point that handwritten letters provide a rare connection to men’s souls that cannot be duplicated in the perfect, mechanical typescript of a word processor.  While I certainly had an easier job reading the typed letters of middle and late twentieth century personalities, I did not feel the same sense of intimate connection with the author as I had felt with the old, (sometimes) sloppily handwritten letters.

So it is with great sadness that I read this report that grade school education in cursive writing is quickly being replaced with technology skills training:

The decline of cursive is happening as students are doing more and more work on computers, including writing. In 2011, the writing test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress will require 8th and 11th graders to compose on computers, with 4th graders following in 2019.

“We need to make sure they’ll be ready for what’s going to happen in 2020 or 2030,” said Katie Van Sluys, a professor at DePaul University and the president of the Whole Language Umbrella, a conference of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Handwriting is increasingly something people do only when they need to make a note to themselves rather than communicate with others, she said. Students accustomed to using computers to write at home have a hard time seeing the relevance of hours of practicing cursive handwriting.

“They’re writing, they’re composing with these tools at home, and to have school look so different from that set of experiences is not the best idea,” she said.  [Full Story Here]

I realize that the world has changed exponentially since I was in grade school.  Though I was never particularly skilled at good handwriting, I used it every day.  Throughout high school and most of my college education, I would always hand-write the majority of my assignments and term papers before typing them up.  Though this was more time consuming, I always believed that I poured more of my heart and soul into my writing when I was able to transfer my thoughts directly into words with my own hand.  Those pencil strokes became my words, not just standardized characters on a computer screen.  Each letter bore my unique (if pathetic) style.  And although I cannot offer empirical proof of my opinion, I truly believed that the quality of my writing was better for having written it by hand.  For various reasons, I have long since abandoned this discipline.  My papers now require too much documentation and footnoting for me to conveniently work with a handwritten rough draft.  However, I still insist on taking practically all my class notes in hand, rather than using a computer.  And I have no intention of ever altering this approach.

I am greatly troubled by the possibility that an entire generation of American school children may grow up without learning how to even sign their own names.  I am also disappointed that fewer and fewer writers will regularly enjoy the unique satisfaction that comes from writing things out by hand.  But I am most troubled by the fact that we as a culture will lose something very essential to our history; namely, the intimacy of the handwritten word in communication.  The Apostle Paul made it a point of emphasis to remind the Corinthians that he wrote his letter “in my own hand” (1 Corinthians 16:21).  Somehow the thought of St. Paul sitting down at his laptop, setting his margins, using spellcheck, and hitting “Print” doesn’t seem like it would convey the same intended effect.  Throughout history, handwritten letters have been a standard form of personal communication.  Without the handwritten word, we are left with a culture that communicates only through typescript, texts, and tweets.  In this regard, we are remarkably out of touch with a once universal practice of human history.  The future of our ability to communicate meaning to one another is now in an unprecedented state of flux.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Sims permalink
    September 29, 2009 11:03 am

    Adam, nice connection with Baptist/church history there! Brother, I’ve been dreading this reality as well. I, too, fear that children in the next 10 years won’t know how to hold a pen or pencil and definitely won’t know how to write their own name. This is sad!

    I believe hand-written letters/notes require a great deal more of thinking. I try to hand-write two or three notes to church members each week; it’s a bit more personal and shows that you took the time to think about them. (I also took all my class notes by hand, college and seminary, without the aid of a laptop/PDA/iPod, etc. It is possible!)

    Good post.

    • September 29, 2009 8:34 pm

      Hey, Steve, it’s great to hear from you!

      I appreciate your favorable words and commend you for working that wrist when it came to classroom note taking! Moreover, you bring up a nice point about the application of hand-written letters to fellow church members. No matter how long or short the letter, most people really appreciate it when someone takes the time to compose by hand. You can’t beat that personal touch, and I think St. Paul would agree.

      Also, congratulations on the impending birth of your first child. I hope you teach your kids the value of composition by hand!

      By the way, it just occurred to me that I make a lot less typos when writing by hand. I try to double check all my posts and papers but it seems like I’m always missing something. Silly keyboard and my errant typing skills!😀

  2. October 14, 2009 4:45 pm

    Hey, now, this is sort of a neat site! You can roll your cursor over the letter and it will write it for you:
    http://www.handwritingforkids.com/handwrite/cursive/animation/uppercase.htm

  3. July 10, 2014 2:15 am

    What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable
    familiarity about unpredicted feelings.

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