Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right: #1: Penmanship

This one is a doozy, and it isn’t just because I get handwritten assignments from students every single day that look like this:

This is actually pretty good; I get far worse

Pity the poor teacher who has to squint at a hundred and eighty of these, day after day. They taught spelling and punctuation, too, which I think wistfully about sometimes as I try unsuccessfully to get my students to care that they don’t know the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘women’. I think I’ve actually become a worse speller since I’ve become a teacher, having been exposed to years of quasi-phonetic approximations, and, recently, cellphone-text-spelling. But I digress.

Here’s a golden-age moment:   a manuscript of one of Herman Melville’s letters. This is the Melville equivalent of a modern “ hey im in class the teacher is a looser ROFL cul8r”. Melville was smarter than average, and had nicer-than-average penmanship, even for back then. Plenty of people didn’t live up to this ideal. But at least there was an ideal. There was the implicit social assumption when you wrote something that other people would be reading it – perhaps even people who would appreciate not having to have an advanced degree in palaeography in order to decipher your Christmas cards.

At some point, people just decided that it wasn’t important anymore. Maybe it was a misguided effort to put the emphasis on the contents of the writing, rather than on the aesthetics (as if the two are mutually exclusive). Maybe it was the advent of machines like this one:   Some people point to the educational reforms of the 1960s, which had nearly Freudian issues with their Victorian and Edwardian parents in the educational sense.

Thing is, it turns out that paying attention to your penmanship is good for your brain. Dr Norman Doidge, author of the bestselling book on neuroplasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself, explains that many of the ‘boring’ rote exercises of the past actually have benefits that go far beyond the acquisition of the skill they are practicing:

“ …for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking.” (pp. 41-42)

Got that? Those days of being forced to stand in front of the class and recite “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen” or Baudelaire, or the Aeneid, really helped your writing. Those hours you spent perfecting your capital ‘I’s in cursive made you a better reader. And, unless your French teacher did you a disservice by not getting you to criticise what you had memorised, probably a better thinker, too. Doidge continues:

“…the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brain-power unfamiliar to us now. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 the debaters would comfortably speak for an hour or more without notes, in extended memorized paragraphs; today many of the most learned among us, raised in our most elite schools since the 1960s, prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation – the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.” (42)

The Arrowsmith School in Toronto takes in students of all ages whose brain functions are compromised in various ways and gives them a series of exercises to increase and strengthen neural connections. Many of the students have trouble with the premotor cortex that Doidge mentions above; symptoms include difficulty reading and speaking fluidly, and handwriting so bad that they are often forced to print or type. Cursive handwriting is much more challenging for the brain than either of the aforementioned methods; the exercises given at Arrowsmith for such students includes tracing complex patterns, lines, and Chinese letters with a pen. The very act of doing so produces dramatic improvements not only in penmanship, but in speaking and reading as well. Students who had been diagnosed with learning, attention, or behavioural disorders found that those were merely symptoms of the frustration of trying to ‘lift’ too much with an underdeveloped premotor ‘muscle’. Doidge again:

“Before continuing to allow time for cursive handwriting practice to be diminished in the classroom we need to know and understand what is being lost and what is being gained. It is quite possible that by relaxing the student’s need to strive to meet required handwriting standards and also by reducing practice time for penmanship, we may have hampered and in some cases damaged the learning process. We may have inadvertently added to the need for special education. Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common learning disabilities.” ABC TV interview with Kerry O’Brien, (09/09/08)

Handwriting is sometimes so bad that parents are hiring Occupational Therapists – people whose jobs used to be confined to helping spinal-injury patients to walk again – to improve their children’s penmanship. The sad demise of recess and muscle/coordination activities surely plays a role in this.

I know from my own experience as a student and a writer how important penmanship can be, cognitively as well as aesthetically. My handwriting was abysmal when I was in grade school. I was a bright student, but even I can barely read my handwriting from back then. It was a constant complaint of my elementary school teachers. But because I was interested in art and drawing, I got interested in calligraphy. And that did something wonderful to my brain. I loved the slick, wet black lines of ink. I loved the smooth way the pen laid words and lines down on the paper. I concentrated and practiced and revelled in the aesthetics of it all, and not only did my handwriting transform utterly, but I started writing poetry just for the sake of continuing to write beautiful words. I did it all with a quill pen, and to this day, I notice a huge difference in the way my mind works when I try to compose poetry on a keyboard. My best stuff is still done with dip pen and ink.

I’m pretty sure our grandparents had no idea what their schoolmasters were doing to their premotor cortexes. Neuroplasticity is a very new concept, and is (finally) debunking the kind of deterministic rhetoric about the “adolescent brain” that we were all force-fed in Teachers’ College. (More on that, and on the terrific amount of uncritical acceptance of such memes as “Brain-Based Learning”, “Multiple Intelligences”, etc., in later posts). Fact is, it doesn’t matter. They understood that it was good for us, and in throwing out this particular baby with the bathwater of overly-authoritarian, rigid, and otherwise unpleasant Victorian education, we’ve really missed a chance to create the ‘Golden Age’ of education that everyone talks about.


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