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The Decline of Penmanship

January 24, 2005

While reading a New York Times article about the decline of penmanship, I recalled something that Martha said at the library: “I used to have better attention for bad writing.”

Of course, she was talking about poor writing rather than poor handwriting. I know what she means, though. I wonder if this impatience comes from the weight of many books read or the ever-foreshortening future in which to read more.

The article describes a long-retired teacher called back to teach eighth-graders handwriting. This is at a private school with above-average students, but it’s the same across America: The modern world does not demand the skill.

Although occasionally it does. In New York, with a very close senate race, a judge disqualified ballots because he couldn’t read the signatures.

Penmanship matters. A legible signature is harder to forge, and legible prescriptions are harder to misread.

The article discusses a new demand on penmanship that hits closer to home for students: The new SAT requires a handwritten essay, to be graded by real, live humans.

More teachers are requiring handwritten essays, in part to battle the cut-and-paste epidemic wherein students copy work from the Internet and submit it as their own.

We visited this topic here a few years ago. The library still has the same two books on the subject: “Write Now: a complete self-teaching program for better handwriting” and “Better handwriting.” They’ve only been checked out a few times since the last article.

We know many people could use it. A quick check of the Internet sign-in sheets confirms this fact. Many offenders are students. It’s discouraging to watch an otherwise capable middle-schooler painstakingly carve out his name in a barely legible script only to watch him next try to read the time on an old-fashioned clock face.

I proposed the Three Ps of Penmanship: position, patience, and practice. As a longtime letter writer, I get plenty of practice. My penmanship fails with position and patience.

To paraphrase something Mark Twain may have said: “The man who does not write well has no advantage over the man who can not.” Once in a while, I’ll take a comfortable position and write a letter with reasonably good penmanship.

The students discussed in the New York Times article, however, barely learned cursive writing, if at all, before abandoning the skill to the computer keyboard.

On a trip to New York City last fall, I took a few notes while sitting in the Starbuck’s at 78th and Lexington. They have nothing to do with penmanship other than that I can still read them, but they point up something I like about old-style cities (large and small).

Here’s a list of the establishments along the block across Lexington Ave: smoke shop, discount photo, Sylvia Pine Uniquities (sic), Carlton Cleaners & Tailors, a nice building entrance to the apartments above, Loft Opticians, hair salon, Antoin shoes, Butterfield Market (taking up four storefronts), and Windsor Florist.

“Downtowns” are nice. A few blocks up, I’d been pointed to a stationery store in my search for a pen and small notebook. I’d neglected to pocket mine before leaving for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and pen and paper in the museum store totaled $14.

Outside, the store looked no more promising, but inside I found paper and a cheap pen at Wal-Mart prices. I returned to the museum and made my still legible, and edifying, notes.

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