How Handwriting Builds Character

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Learning to navigate convention while expressing individuality can be subtle and tricky. But the basics are all in the wrist.

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Learning handwriting may be good for the brain. It may even inspire surprisingly memorable advertising. But does it also prevent crime? That's what the conservative physician and cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) maintains when deploring the state of Indiana's decision to abolish mandatory cursive instruction in the Wall Street Journal:

Indeed, my first reaction to the news from Indiana was visceral despair, not only because the world I had known was now declared antediluvian, dead and buried, but because it presaged a further hollowing out of the human personality, a further colonization of the human mind by the virtual at the expense of the real.

When I scrawled and blotted and smudged my way across the page, I had the feeling that, for good or evil, what I had done was my own and unique. And since everyone's writing was different, despite the uniformity of the exercises, our handwriting gave us a powerful, and very early, sense of our own individuality. Those who learn to write only on a screen will have more difficulty in distinguishing themselves from each other, and since the need to do so will remain, they will adopt more extreme ways of doing so. Less handwriting, then, more social pathology.

Is Dr. Daniels overreacting? Perhaps, according to one recent study of prisoners' and non-prisoners' handwriting. According to the abstract:

The diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder was not significantly associated with any of the graphical measures [supposed to indicate it]; however, 5 of the 13 parameters were different between the Antisocial Personality Disorder and the non-Antisocial Personality Disorder groups in a direction opposite of expectations.

But I think he has a point that handwriting does express a healthy balance between convention and individuality. When I wrote the chapter on the typewriter keyboard in Our Own Devices, I discovered that, although France maintained a distinctive and beautiful school hand called "ronde," familiar from countless bistro menus, it also permitted great individuality among adults. A single company in 1885 was selling over 500 different nibs, recalling Charles de Gaulle's later remark on the challenge of governing a nation with 246 kinds of cheese.

The French may not be more virtuous than others, but they benefit from a tension between a compulsion to national uniformity and a drive for personal expression. As the Paris-based blogger David Lebovitz put it,

I have pretty good penmanship, but it's nothing like the calligraphie of the French. Theirs can be absolutely unreadable, but is always done with so much flair and polish, that it's hard to fault them.

There's also an enlightening forum on the subject here.

When I recently spoke on handwriting after Gutenberg in a local public library program, presented pro and con arguments on continued school instruction and took a poll, the children and teenagers in the audience seemed to be as overwhelmingly pro-handwriting as their elders. And this is in a central New Jersey technoburb.

States and school districts thinking of eliminating handwriting teaching -- cursive or italic -- should at least make it possible for a minority of motivated teachers and students to learn the skill, and track the results. I'll bet that as Dr. Daniels believes, it can be a key to a healthier approach to education and life.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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