Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The lost art of handwriting

The days when children were taught to write properly are long gone.
Does it matter? Yes, says Umberto Eco

By Umberto Eco
The Guardian, Monday 21 September 2009

Recently, two Italian journalists wrote a three-page newspaper article
(in print, alas) about the decline of handwriting. By now it's
well-known: most kids – what with computers (when they use them) and
text messages – can no longer write by hand, except in laboured
capital letters.

In an interview, a teacher said that students also make lots of
spelling mistakes, which strikes me as a separate problem: doctors
know how to spell and yet they write poorly; and you can be an expert
calligrapher and still write "guage" or "gage" instead of "gauge".

I know children whose handwriting is fairly good. But the article
talks of 50% of Italian kids – and so I suppose it is thanks to an
indulgent destiny that I frequent the other 50% (something that
happens to me in the political arena, too).

The tragedy began long before the computer and the cellphone.

My parents' handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the
sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today's
standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with
poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It's
obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine
intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written
as they should be.

My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first
months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters.
The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught
us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters
rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not
always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks,
notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge
that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to

The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early
ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you
ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared.
And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since
handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no
longer had soul, style or personality.

Why should we regret the passing of good handwriting? The capacity to
write well and quickly on a keyboard encourages rapid thought, and
often (not always) the spell-checker will underline a misspelling.

Although the cellphone has taught the younger generation to write
"Where R U?" instead of "Where are you?", let us not forget that our
forefathers would have been shocked to see that we write "show"
instead of "shew" or "enough" instead of "enow". Medieval theologians
wrote "respondeo dicendum quod", which would have made Cicero recoil
in horror.

The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages
hand-eye coordination.

The three-page article pointed out that writing by hand obliges us to
compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the
resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think.
Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would
sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so
they could think with greater calm.

It's true that kids will write more and more on computers and
cellphones. Nonetheless, humanity has learned to rediscover as sports
and aesthetic pleasures many things that civilisation had eliminated
as unnecessary.

People no longer travel on horseback but some go to a riding school;
motor yachts exist but many people are as devoted to true sailing as
the Phoenicians of 3,000 years ago; there are tunnels and railroads
but many still enjoy walking or climbing Alpine passes; people collect
stamps even in the age of email; and armies go to war with
Kalashnikovs but we also hold peaceful fencing tournaments.

It would be a good thing if parents sent kids off to handwriting
schools so they could take part in competitions and tournaments – not
only to acquire grounding in what is beautiful, but also for
psychomotor wellbeing. Such schools already exist; just search for
"calligraphy school" on the internet. And perhaps for those with a
steady hand but without a steady job, teaching this art could become a
good business.

• Umberto Eco's latest book is On Ugliness. He is also author of the
international bestsellers Baudolino, The Name of the Rose and
Foucault's Pendulum, among others.

Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate