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Bloomsbury   It would not be accurate to say that Anne Trubek is an advocate for eliminating the teaching of penmanship, or cursive, in schools, or the use of it elsewhere -- only that she believes it inevitable. Trubek, of Shaker Heights, sets forth...

Does handwriting matter? New book looks at its future in the digital era

Bloomsbury   It would not be accurate to say that Anne Trubek is an advocate for eliminating the teaching of penmanship, or cursive, in schools, or the use of it elsewhere -- only that she believes it inevitable. Trubek, of Shaker Heights, sets forth...

Does handwriting matter? New book looks at its future in the digital era
Bloomsbury  

It would not be accurate to say that Anne Trubek is an advocate for eliminating the teaching of penmanship, or cursive, in schools, or the use of it elsewhere -- only that she believes it inevitable.

Trubek, of Shaker Heights, sets forth a reasonable case in her new book "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting" (Bloomsbury, 177 pp., $26). Teaching keyboarding and other new writing techniques and technologies instead of writing with a pencil is little different, she says, than teaching drivers' ed using cars with automatic transmissions rather than stick shifts.

The writing may be on the wall. The Common Core State Standards Initiative gives handwriting little curricular importance, though in this as in other areas, Common Core is being resisted. (One Catholic school, Trubek says, cites "a dress code, teaching of moral values, and cursive writing" as its advantages over public schools -- and it's not the only one that does so.)

Anxiety about the subject is not new. The introduction and popularity of the typewriter caused a 1928 school administrator to worry that the teaching of handwriting was being minimized; many others shared similar concerns. It is so, Trubek says, whenever a familiar technology is in the process of being supplanted by another.

Most of the book, though, is not a polemic about handwriting but rather a history of it -- short but serviceable, intelligent, and delightful, with a tinge of truculence, as well, as readers of Trubek's previous book, the also delightful "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses," will recognize.  

She begins where writing is generally considered to have begun, in Sumer (present-day Iraq) with cuneiform -- wedge-shaped indentations made in clay tablets. Cuneiform had no literary, pedagogic, or religious purpose -- the tablets  recorded commercial transactions and agreements.

Egyptian hieroglyphics, in contrast, were used, in large part, to glorify the pharaoh and other gods. The Egyptians devised other, less complicated systems of writing, hieratic and demotic, for business and governmental purposes. Greek writing used an alphabet, but not spaces or punctuation, because it was meant to be read aloud. (One Greek didn't like writing at all; it eroded memory, among other perverse effects, said Socrates.)

In America, handwriting became the subject of nineteenth-century proselytizers such as Platt Rogers Spencer (a one-time resident of Geneva-on-the-Lake, where he is still celebrated by some) whose script resembles the logo on a bottle of Coca-Cola; and his successor of sorts, A. N. Palmer. The systems of both men required discipline and many hours of drill, and imbued handwriting with an almost mystical significance. Good penmanship had, according to Spencer, "dignity as an intellectual pursuit," and a follower of his said that it "refines our tastes, assists in cultivating our judgment, and thereby makes us better men." Is it a recommendation for our digital age that such sentiments sound so quaint?

There will come a day, some say, when the internet expires. The hippest millennials use Olivetti typewriters in today's coffee shops. Maybe it should not be a surprise that Trubek's students at Oberlin College, 18-year-olds, all protested when she raised the idea of not teaching handwriting to elementary school students.

You've got to feel for them. In later life they will never have a cardboard box full of letters from a girlfriend, or mother, or grandma, nor will they ever see that that the style of the writing, its slant, the color of the ink -- all that real, physical stuff -- is just as poignant as the words themselves.

Gamin is a Cleveland lawyer.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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