On handwriting

Like a Drunken spider walking across the page – that is how one teacher described my illegible scrawling at the age of 11. I am still traumatised by those classes. So I was rather pleased to hear this year that Finland, which regularly tops the PISA charts for the best academic performance in the world, has decided to drop traditional handwriting classes from its national curriculum in 2016 in order to focus on keyboard skills.

As I pointed out in a previous post, writing, unlike speaking, does not come naturally. We have only been doing it for some 5000 years, and two-thirds of the 6000 or so languages in the world are not written down. A child will not be able to produce this highly sophisticated symbolic form of representation without instruction. So if it is not taught, writing as we know it will disappear. Handwriting is becoming an anachronism. Will it die out in the next few decades?

Its defenders argue that writing stimulates cognitive processing, helping us to learn and retain information. It activates the Reticular Activating System (RAS), the area of the brain responsible for tactile learning. Moreover it also helps us to develop other skills such as reading and it is even said to be beneficial for maths. Writing is excellent for practising fine motor skills.

There are a lot of virtues to writing by hand. But I am sure we will be able to adapt to the new technology. Socrates opposed writing itself, because of the effects it would have on memory. But writing has brought with it far more advantages than drawbacks.

One benefit will be in the area of the correction of written work. It is pretty clear that teachers and professors give students lower marks if they have poor handwriting. If you have an identical poorly written handwritten essay, and a nicely written handwritten one, they may well receive different grades. This problem goes away with typed work, where only the content will decide its worth. I also feel that the very large amount of time devoted to handwriting at, kindergarten and in primary schools could be better employed. These kids can already be quite proficient on their keyboards. It will considerably free up teachers’ time, allowing them to concentrate on more important areas.

I’m now going to look at the pseudoscience of graphology. It feels like common sense that someone who writes in an organised way will be tidy. But graphologists go further claiming that leaving wide spaces between letters indicates a proneness to isolation and loneliness because the wide spaces indicate someone who does not mix easily and is uncomfortable with closeness. One graphologist claims that a person betrays his sadistic nature if he crosses his t’s with lines that look like whips.

It may appear believable, but science is about testing our preconceptions. There is no credible scientific theory as to how graphology would work. Like many other such questionable activities it relies on anecdotal evidence; most empirical studies fail to show the validity claimed by its proponents. Indeed, the British Psychological Society ranks graphology alongside astrology, giving them both “zero validity.  It would be harmless if it were not used for recruitment purposes. According to my research the French are quite into this. The Sceptic’s Dictionary has this lovely put-down:”

“If … you don’t mind discriminating against people on the basis of pseudoscientific nonsense, then at least have the consistency to use a Ouija board to help you pick the right graphologist”

A more serious area is forensic handwriting analysis. This is based on the fact that everyone has their unique style of handwriting. Even identical twins who share appearance and genetics don’t have the same handwriting. People might be able to copy it, but they can never write it in the identical way. Wikipedia has this list of characteristics of handwriting:

specific shape of letters, e.g. their roundness or sharpness

regular or irregular spacing between letters

the slope of the letters

the rhythmic repetition of the elements or arrhythmia

the pressure to the paper

the average size of letters

the thickness of letters

Professionals in this field analyse documents for signs of alteration, forgery and, when sample documents are available, they make comparisons to determine or rule out if the same person was responsible for each text. However, forensic handwriting analysis has its limitations too. The big problem with this enterprise is that ultimately it is a subjective one. It’s not like CSI. In the real world you have a complex task being carried out by fallible people whose subjective evaluation will affect the result you get. It is worth pointing out that this critique can also apply to fingerprint analysis. There have been attempts to introduce more standardised training and certification procedures, but its use in court is still questionable.

One famous case where experts got it “wrong” was the infamous Hitler Diaries. Konrad Kujau, a conman masquerading as a collector of Nazi memorabilia, claimed to be in possession of 60 journals allegedly written by Adolf Hitler, which had just been discovered in the wreckage of an airplane that had left Germany after World War II. As well as a number of German publications, The Sunday Times was interested. The London newspaper, recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch, requested a professional handwriting analysis to ensure authenticity. The three international experts in forensic handwriting analysis who compared the diaries to exemplars of Hitler’s handwriting, all agreed that the diaries were written by the same person who wrote the exemplars. The diaries were for real. Only when the ink, paper and bindings were analysed was the forgery discovered.  In fact the three analysts were right – all the documents had been written by the same person. Kujau had also had the comparison documents forged too!

It’s been years since I’ve hand-written a letter and I tend to send few Christmas cards. But, I don’t think handwriting will completely disappear. There is a whole world of penmanship that will remain a passion for some people. Companies such as Montblanc serve this market. But it will clearly be a minority activity as keyboards play an ever-increasing role in our lives. Even the signature may become extinct. I do not generally get too sentimental about technology – I tend to cringe when people talk about the smell of books. Stone carvings and the manuscripts done by monks were undoubtedly beautiful but they were superseded by printing. Civilisation survived and indeed prospered. Perhaps the future will combine the new and the old. The digital pen is an input device which captures the handwriting of a user, converting it into digital data. Here is a video to close with:

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