Handwriting and Other Irrelevant Skills

handwritingWhen I was about ten years old, my family was living in a suburb far to the east of the San Francisco Bay area, nestled in the foothills of Mount Diablo. I had recently learned that we were moving to Seattle, where my father had been recently transferred by his company, so I was practicing writing the name of my new town. Very carefully, probably with my tongue sticking out between my teeth, I drew the two stems for the double ‘t’, and figuring that it would be easier, I drew one single horizontal cross line through the two stems. My father took one look at it, chastised me for writing improperly, and made me write it 100 times with separate cross bars on the ‘t’s.

His reasoning (which tended to be a bit cloudy on matters like this) was that I would never get a job if I didn’t develop proper handwriting skills. Perspective employers would take one look at my handwritten job application and realize that I was either uneducated, lazy, or probably both.

Of course, my father, speaking to me in 1979, could have never anticipated how little that proper handwriting would matter to my future employers. My first résumés and cover letters were word-processed and laser-printed (cutting edge in 1991!) and my first job as a software developer was at a progressive company where most information was submitted electronically to computerized databases. Keyboarding skills were what counted to my employers, and I quickly learned to type far faster than I could ever write by hand. I have since lost the ability to write in cursive, and my printing is a sorry sight.

I tell this story not to highlight my father’s inability to see the future, but to remind us of the ways in which technological changes can quickly make particular skills that seem all-important today mostly irrelevant by tomorrow. Proper handwriting, once considered the mark of education and cultural refinement, is largely irrelevant to our digital culture. We are still surrounded by words, but those words no longer emanate from the tip of a pen or pencil controlled by a steady and practiced hand.

To be clear, I am not arguing that this was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ change—there are authors who argue that handwriting is essential to memory and intellectual development, and others that are ecstatic to see handwriting go the way of so many other skills that we no longer need to learn. One can argue this either way, but the larger point is that proper handwriting is no longer a skill that is necessary to survive and thrive in our society, and very few people would have foreseen that just 30 years ago.

What other skills are we demanding our children and students learn today that will become socially irrelevant within their lifetimes? Will voice-to-text (or thought-to-text) software eventually get to the point where we rarely need to even type anymore? If so, the need to spell correctly might also become unnecessary, as the software will do the spelling for you. What other “critical” skills might soon be made redundant?


3 thoughts on “Handwriting and Other Irrelevant Skills

  1. Janice

    Interesting article. I used to teach in elementary school and had to teach handwriting. The big problem was my handwriting was horrible. I taught it but did have conversations with other teacher’s about its value. There have been several articles about how important it is, not just for small motor skills such as this Wall Street Journal article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704631504575531932754922518.html
    Most state standards have now changed for handwriting so I am not sure how teachers handle sloppy assignments. I now teach high school and most of the students complete their work on computers.
    It is interesting that my mom made me take Personal Use Typing, though I was going to college and not going to do secretarial work. She thought it would be helpful with papers I needed to write in college. Other students in the college prep track thought why are you going to need to know how to type well. I entered college in 69 and I cannot tell you how thankful I was for that course, to write all those papers but when computers came out I could use them. It was interesting for others my age and for those right under me who were not in that, teach keyboarding in elementary school age who still hen and peck.
    It all does make you wonder what are those skills that will be most needed in the future. Maybe we aren’t sure of some subject matter but we should emphasize work ethic, problem solving, creativity, writing skills, etc. for the subjects we do teach so they would be prepared for those the changes that will come.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Janice, and for the link to the WSJ article. I do agree that handwriting is probably an important skill to learn for personal intellectual development, but it is interesting to me that one no longer needs “proper” handwriting to survive and thrive in our digital culture (that is, it’s not longer a requisite *social* skill). I’m sure that handwriting will continue to be taught, but I suspect that more and more of our writing, even from very young ages, will be done via keyboards, speech-to-text, or eventually thought-to-text (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/the-cyborg-in-us-all.html?_r=1&ref=technology).

  2. Sam Van Eman

    My daughter and her elementary-aged friends bought cursive writing books a couple of years ago and practiced on their own at recess. It’s a dying art, for sure. First-year college students recently informed me that it was quite a struggle to complete the SAT verification sentence. Just a sentence but they were required to write it in cursive, something few of them could actually do.


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