Saturday, November 10, 2007

After the Gramme

There's a new Newsweek article on the maybe-return of an emphasis on improving handwriting in K-12 education. Maybe I'm prejudiced, since most of my elementary school Bs come from grades in handwriting. But give it a read.

Some of the material is really intriguing:

Emily Knapton, director of program development at Handwriting Without Tears, believes that "when kids struggle with handwriting, it filters into all their academics. Spelling becomes a problem; math becomes a problem because they reverse their numbers."
Of course you could also write, "when kids struggle with ______, it filters into all their academics" and be more-or-less right; this doesn't really justify making handwriting a higher-stakes part of education.

Other ideas just seem like red herrings (the etiquette of handwritten thank-you cards, the new essay component of the SAT -- which actually doesn't emphasize or grade handwriting at all, at least officially).

One thought that came to mind, though, is how for most of human history, writing -- i.e., the physical/graphical etching out of letters, not literacy or composition -- has been degrading menial labor, fit for slaves and scribes and monks and scriveners and (in this century) typists and secretaries. My wife pointed out that in hospitals, you can tell someone's status by how legible their handwriting is (the easier it is to read, the lower status the writer has) -- the hidden social signals of doctors' bad handwriting. And you can see this still in the denigration of handwriting -- teaching script is rote, contentless learning, suitable maybe for the illiterate and for the disciplining of bodies, but not today's modern, first-world, knowledge-worker children.

But as the reproduction of writing has grown more technological and less mechanical, writing has grown more democratic. Virtually everyone is now expected to type their own documents, and the secretary/typist is the vestige only of the most powerful people. And manuscript writing has in turn acquired the prestige that we see so often in outmoded technologies -- Walter Benjamin might say that it's regained its aura, the halo of creative, individual sacrality that surrounds Renaissance paintings or similar now-unique objects.

This power has always been in the signature, the autograph, the original manuscript. But those objects aren't ephemeral. What do we do with a mode of communication that's still essential to learning, newly (re)associated with a kind of prestige of immediacy, yet more and more disposable, possibly to the point of disappearing from the paper and electronic record entirely?

1 comment:

DDanielle said...

The only failing grade I got in elementary was for handwriting. This was from a teacher who claimed that if we didn't have "good" handwriting now we never will....then he failed me in the subject, never quite made sense. I don't feel it has really has been such problem, other than writing thank-you notes.