I recently enjoyed the opportunity to speak to several Year 11 students about their lives as so-called “Digital Natives”. The conversation was prompted by a Critical Thinking exercise where we interrogated an article which put forward several arguments – of varying degrees of merit – as to why we should continue to teach handwriting in a digital age. It was striking that these teenagers, the children of the digital age, were not yet ready to abandon the paper and pen. Equally striking was their reasoning.
One really engaging student from Macau was unequivocal about the cultural importance of handwriting. For her the characters in Mandarin and letters in English are integral to identity. To lose the individuality of the written word was akin to losing an important signifier of ourselves and our distinctive cultures. Keyboards, she argued, are functional but fail to achieve this more fundamental role.
Indeed, to a greater or lesser extent, the cultural importance of handwriting was a leitmotif in our conversations. One student took the debate a stage further by referencing parts of the world untouched by the digital revolution. Is it right that our world is divided by the loss of a shared activity? Writing by hand is an activity potentially open to virtually every civilisation – would the migration to a digital platform mark the opening of a divide which will only grow exponentially as the digital behemoth marches onwards?
It is clear to me that the ethics behind this debate need to be aired beyond a Critical Thinking exercise with Year 11 students. As Principal of a school where students from Year 7 are issued with a digital device, this issue is brought into sharp relief on a daily basis. It is a given that our students must write by hand – but not for ethical or cultural reasons. For schools the reality is that public examinations are handwritten and therefore students must learn to not only write by hand but write at speed. Pragmatism therefore is the main driver.
As such, to ensure we don’t sleepwalk into some dystopian digital future, should we not engage in a proper debate about handwriting? Has it a future in a digital age? It was interesting that the Year 11 students did not struggle at all with moving between handwriting and using a keyboard. Indeed, the point was made that the act of handwriting suited certain situations much better than using a keyboard. Whilst handwriting allowed for elaboration of a specific point, the use of a keyboard, with the capacity to redraft extended writing, supported extended writing activities. As students they were keen to use the most effective tool for the task in hand.
For them all, surrounded as they are by all kinds of digital paraphernalia, they held a strong sense of sentimentality about handwriting which superseded functionality. After all, it is a very personal form of expression. Our handwriting is unique – hence the science of graphology. The letters created through the tap of a finger are frankly anodyne. As a student of History myself, I have had the pleasure of looking at historical documents from across the ages. Written with a quill or a pen, the document is unique. And even the printed word annotated by the author creates a sense of connection with them.
So in the race for digital progress let’s pause and reflect on what it means for our future if handwriting becomes technologically obsolete. Should handwriting nevertheless be conserved as a skill because it is an extension of ourselves? The human footprint in history? Or frankly, just as the invention of print transformed people’s lives, is this digital revolution heralding the death knell of handwriting in countries consumed by the digital world? Surely this is worth a conversation.