Handwriting is on the wall for longhand

February 21, 1996|By Tina Cassidy | Tina Cassidy,BOSTON GLOBE

No one answers the telephone these days at the International Association of Master Penmen and Teachers of Handwriting.

Elementary school principals no longer hold sessions on handwriting at their national convention. Calligraphers are looking for second jobs. Cursive, it seems, may be cursed.

"My child never really learned how to do cursive, and it was something that troubled me for quite a while until I realized he had segued right from printing to the computer," says Andrea Oseas of Cambridge, Mass.

She says her son, Jesse, 14, probably will need to sign his name to checks and documents as he gets older, but she fears "handwriting is going to become a lost art."

Many people are beginning to question whether it's still important to learn longhand when nearly 40 percent of U.S. households have computers and increasing amounts of work and communications are done on a keyboard.

"I've noticed over the years, more and more students complain that this is very unnatural for them," says Leslie Perelman, an associate dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where first-year students balk at having to take a pen-and-ink writing test in a traditional blue book. "We know we're at a transition."

Certainly, learning longhand is not the academic staple it once was.

Is this progress?

"Absolutely not," says author Shelby Foote, who writes all his books longhand.

"It's a great loss."

For his acclaimed three-volume history of the Civil War, Mr. Foote relied on the hand-written letters of soldiers for much of the detail. He believes a lot can be learned about a person's character from his handwriting.

"When you study a Faulkner manuscript," he says, "you figure out the best thoughts he got were second thoughts. He was always scratching out things and making additions.

"If you see a Balzac manuscript, it's covered in the margins with corrections and alterations. Those things tell you a lot about a writer."

With computers, Mr. Foote says, "there aren't any more manuscripts. If they see a mistake, they wipe out the mistake and put the new thing in."

Elissa Barr, a calligrapher who runs the referral service for the Masscribes Calligraphy Organization in Boston, says computers have "damaged my business tremendously.

"There will always be room for calligraphers," she says, referring to clients who like handwritten wedding invitations or bar mitzvah seating charts. "However, that doesn't mean we're not going to have to get other jobs."

To be sure, there are still elementary teachers who believe in the importance of handwriting. Parochial schools in particular are among the holdouts.

But there are those who say any discussion of cursive overlooks the real issue: It's what you write, not how you write it, that matters. Since 1964, when author Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," the debate over the written word has intensified.

Those who agree with Mr. McLuhan say technology is not dTC neutral, that it colors the way we interact, think and produce. His disciples include teachers who give lower grades for papers written in bad penmanship and people who bristle at getting holiday notes typed instead of handwritten.

Then there are those who say the medium affects the message.

Composing a report on a computer, they say, is very different from writing in pen and ink. Word processing makes sentences elastic, allowing the writer to move paragraphs or change the ending easily.

Writing longhand, by contrast, forces one to think about what to say before putting it on the page.

Technology has already come full circle. Calligraphers say they now compete against computer fonts that duplicate a person's handwriting. For $99.95, Signature Software Inc. in Hood River, Ore., will take a sample of an individual's handwriting and create a disc that will reproduce it on any document.

"You never really have to pick up a pen," says company spokeswoman Jeanette Burkhardt. "You can fax something directly from your keyboard, making it look as if you wrote it out. And you can sign things, too."

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, who gleans valuable insights from the handwritten letters of her subjects, laments the changes in communication.

"Certain biographies, without those letters, are not going to have the same immediacy," she says. "For a while, I thought that when the fax came and e-mail came that it might preserve more than the telephone. . . . But people don't save faxes the same as letters. They seem like something to be treasured."

Still, even she is succumbing to the modern age. Until now she has written all her books in longhand, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the interest of saving time, however, her latest project on Abraham Lincoln will be different: "I'm hoping to start my next book on a computer."

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