Evolution in Writing

January 20, 2010

A decline in the use and quality of handwriting is being reported as students increasingly work on computers. (See Tom Breen’s AP article, “Some fear technology is erasing need for students to learn cursive,” Buffalo News , Sept. 21, 2009.)

During the centuries-long pen-and-ink era, good penmanship was a saleable commodity. Then it largely began to be replaced by typing ability with the advent of the typewriter. And now it is computer skills that are being sought—at the expense of cursive writing. In 2011, eighth- and ninth-graders will be required to compose on computers for the writing test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fourth-graders will follow in 2019. Stated the president of the Whole Language Umbrella (a conference of the National Council of Teachers of English), “We need to make sure they’ll be ready for what’s going to happen in 2020 or 2030.”

I sense that is to be, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It certainly gives pause to this calligrapher and handwriting expert (who is called upon to examine questioned historical documents, like the Jack the Ripper Diary). I share the concern of a mother whose eighth-grade daughter could scarcely sign her name: “It looks like a little kid’s signature,” she laments. That is not surprising when the largest school system in her state (West Virginia) teaches cursive only in the third grade.

I’m trying to think positively: One bright note may be the consequent decline in graphology, the pseudoscience of handwriting “analysis.” Most forensic handwriting experts distance themselves from graphology, which purports to divine character traits from certain penned elements (such as the height of one’s t -bars). Unfortunately, graphology lacks a suitable experimental foundation, in part because of the difficulty of measuring such vague traits as “generosity” (whether overt or “latent”). (For a discussion, see my Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents , 1996, pp. 17–24. See also Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science , 1957, 196–197.)

I’m an optimist. We’ve lost the fine art of writing hieroglyphics with a reed pen on papyrus, but we also no longer spend much time attempting divination from the entrails of sheep. Once again, things may be looking up.