When 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?