Tom Hodgkinson: Beautiful writing feeds the soul

Tom Hodgkinson@indyvoices
Sunday 24 February 2013 01:00

When I was at university in the late 1980s, I had an American housemate, Chris. He was outstandingly bright. He was here on a year abroad as part of his degree, studying physics at Yale. But he had the worst handwriting I had ever seen. It was a horrible, ugly scrawl. Admittedly mine was not exactly on the Eric Gill level, but at least it was joined up and legible. Chris did all his work on a word processor, a novelty to us backward Europeans back then, who still wrote our essays on lined paper with a fountain pen. I felt sorry for Chris, though, because his childish writing made him look stupid.

Well, the reason Chris had terrible handwriting was that he hadn't been taught it. He was a victim of the daft progressive educationalists who believe that, in the digital age, handwriting, still less beautiful handwriting, should be consigned to the dustbin along with illuminated manuscripts. Today there are 41 states in the US which say that joined-up, or cursive, handwriting is optional, and that students should focus instead on typing skills.

Sadly this attack on beautiful handwriting has now infiltrated British schools. My eight-year-old son has writing that would shame an Edwardian four-year-old. The letters hover in mid-air, they slope backwards and they are of wildly varying size. It is very hard to read. When I quizzed his teachers on this, they explained that handwriting is not a priority for them, since only three marks in a hundred are given for presentation when the children do their SATs. Any teacher, therefore, would have to make a special effort to go off curriculum to teach their pupils to write neatly. The decline of handwriting, then, is clearly not the fault of the teachers, but of the system itself.

And if handwriting is not taught in primary school, it is certainly not taught in secondary school. When I asked one English teacher at our local comp her handwriting philosophy, she said: "I don't have one." They appear to believe that as long as the writing is legible, that is enough. By secondary school, it is probably too late.

And it's not just state schools. Posh schools ignore handwriting as well. I am amazed by the sloppy writing and terrible grammar of 25-year-olds of my acquaintance who have been to schools such as Marlborough and Bedales. What a waste of money. For all the iniquities of the Victorian age, at least schools in those days taught their pupils how to write nicely, as anyone who has seen a Victorian postcard will know.

To consign handwriting to a historical footnote is an attack on the very idea of beauty. It is a pleasure and a joy to read a nice italic script on an envelope. Grandparents love to receive carefully scribed thank-you letters from children. A handwritten letter from a friend is a gift. You can keep it, you can look at it, it will last forever – unlike an email. Beautiful handwriting simply adds to the amount of beauty in the world. It feeds the soul. It is polite to fellow human beings. And the idea that we will never need to use a pen because we will only write on a computer is absurd. I use a pen all day long for making quick notes. Pens work. They are portable. And they don't need charging.

Instead of handwriting, the children spend a lot of time at school on laptops. To see a class of eight-year-olds staring at screens fills me with sadness. Do they not have enough screens at home?

As is the case with those other controversial subjects that are not taught well in primary schools – times tables, grammar and spelling – parents have to step in and fill the gaps. We bought a handwriting teaching guide and some of that lovely multi-lined paper. I sat down with our eight-year-old for an hour one evening and by the end of it he was producing presentable writing with letters of an equal size. He was thrilled with the work he had produced. Now we are resolved to spend a few minutes a day on handwriting with the children.

Other families are not so lucky. Most parents would be too exhausted to sit down for handwriting lessons in the evening. It's boring, repetitive work. That stuff should be done at school.

As we grow into adults, we suddenly realise that we have awful handwriting. We decide to change it and that is why our course in cursive at the Idler Academy is always a sell-out. And spare us from that hideous bubble script. We want italic! We want truth! We want beauty! 1

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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