The Death of Handwriting

As the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Philadelphia is America's unofficial capital of penmanship. So what happens in an age when cursive gets conquered by the keyboard?

HIT THE O on your keyboard. Go on. Hit it again. Now hit the T. Feel any difference? Unless one key or the other is sticky with soda, you won’t. Now, find a pen and make the Palmerian letter O in cursive, complete with that silly topknot. Take your time. Make another. O. O. O. Feel the roundness in your fingertips as you form the circle. Sense how your mouth puckers in a ring as you go. O. O. Now make a lowercase T: swing up, swing down, add on the little tail. Cross your T. See T on the page, feel T on your tongue, think T in your brain.

“All skills,” says George Newman, chair of the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network’s neurosensory sciences department, “have a background in what we’ve learned about the world through our senses. Our ideas are a combination of visual, auditory and tactile input.” The areas of our brains that process sound, vision, touch and even emotion surround the region that forms ideas. When you learn something by drawing on all your senses and feelings, you activate more neurons and wind up, Newman says, with a much richer, more dimensional idea.

And we remember it differently than we do the tap of a key. When we see an O again, our brain sets off a biochemical reaction that fans out along those neural pathways, triggering more memories and feelings as it goes. What’s more, in printing, every letter is discrete; in cursive, letters hook up differently depending on what they’re next to. The brain has to work harder to translate the letters into movements of the pen. When it comes to the brain, hard work is good. Studies have shown that adults taught a new, invented alphabet by copying the letters by hand remember it better than those who learn it on a keyboard—and that areas in their brains that oversee language comprehension, motor-related processes and gestures associated with speech show more activity. Schoolchildren who write essays in cursive produce longer work, perform faster and express more ideas than those composing on keyboards.

“You keyboard by location,” Newman says. “Only the fingertip is in contact. There’s no nuance or flexibility.” He can think of only two possible substitutes for the sophisticated manual dexterity cursive handwriting instills: learning to play a musical instrument, and classical drawing. “Maybe pottery,” he allows. “Maybe brush-painting or needle-and-thread sewing.” But they’re not on the No Child Left Behind tests either. And why would you substitute, he asks: “What would you gain? For the full richness of language development, handwriting plays an essential role.” In other words, neurologically speaking, in developing cursive, we humans somehow managed to create the perfect means of developing our minds.