As I recall it now, the awards day was for all of us gathered in the school’s auditorium a day of anticipation as well as of obligatory observance. In my case it needn’t be a matter of suspense: indifferent, distracted, and, above all else, bored, I was the worst of students. Each and every year toward the end of the proceedings I received the brown and gold felt badge in the category designated for those of us who in reality had earned no prize. I am speaking of course of the award for Penmanship.
There is, thirty years later, an irony in this. In the 1970s, when I was a piece of lumber taking up space in the classroom, penmanship was a dedicated course to which a certain amount of attention was given. Teachers cared about their students’ handwriting, and so it would be wrong and anachronistic to think of penmanship then as occupying the place of low regard and even disregard that it now inhabits. Furthermore, I too cared about penmanship. It remains an issue of pride for me today that I can put down a decent and legible cursory line. I always take active notice of someone’s handwriting, and as it happens it was the distinctive lower case Fs of a letter I received sixteen years ago, from someone who had taken an interest in one of my books, which drew my attention. That letter was written by the woman with whom I have been ever since. To those many of you who say penmanship no longer matters, I reply, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” In any area of human endeavour where the debate over relevance occurs, the answer will necessarily be the same. Handwriting, or whatever else it is, matters to those for whom it matters.
Now I gather from my professor friends that only a few of every hundred university entrance exams are written in cursive, most having been written in print. I suppose there will be readers of this essay who are unable to describe the difference. It follows that those few practitioners of cursive script are members of an elite, which in my view is a sufficient argument on behalf of this almost-lost art. Who wants to be a member of the herd? Not that I am of the habit of promoting elitism. I would prefer to see the teaching of handwriting restored to its former place of importance, but I have no illusions concerning the likelihood of such a quaint policy. What scant reading on the subject I have done suggests that computers are behind the decline of handwriting, but I doubt it is so simple as that. Computers have keyboards, and unless I am mistaken (and I may be), there has been no commensurate surge in the teaching of typing.
No, the only explanation for the decline in the teaching of handwriting is this, that there has been a decline of teaching in everything but the so-called core subjects. The poor folk to whom I alluded at the top of the previous paragraph have been deprived of more than the Palmer method. The same soft-headed pseudo reasoning which weathers the storm waves upon the gas-filled mantra of Global Competitiveness elsewhere effaces all that is individual, in favour of the formulaic and faddish. The education industry has never been more condescendingly student-centred while at the same time more hostile to actual students. That’s quite an accomplishment, but rather off the topic.
I happen to be old enough to remember the ink-stained fingers and the desks with the ink pot holes (albeit inherited without the ink pots themselves) and the penmanship drills. Like everyone else of my generation, I spent years learning to write “properly.” As soon as I could, I accommodated those lessons to my own habits and dispositions and thereby deviated from the standard. I almost wrote in the previous sentence that I “discarded those lessons,” but that is not the case, in penmanship or in anything else pertaining to my school days. The fact, here and elsewhere, is that I remain at least in part captive to my childhood education. It happens that some of the things which at the time I most despised, and over which I took the most flak from my teachers and which therefore to me seemed the most irrational and cruel of their dictates — precisely these remain with me. The way that I to this day write my Ps tells me something about indoctrination; and penmanship, whatever else it is, is precisely that. It is impossible to imagine the reviving of the rigid and absolute standards of those days without the reviving also of the implicit threat of violence, of the real and imagined cruelties of the system, and in general of the opaque and Victorian atmosphere of the entire undertaking. Looked at one way, the illegible and idiosyncratic scribbles of our young today can be seen as the outcomes of a culture which has quite rejected the pedagogical dictatorships of my own youth.
Of what good is nostalgia? No good, and anyways it is never too late to take up the art of penmanship if one so desires. If you are under thirty, the likelihood is high that you have never been subjected to the teaching of penmanship which was the stuff of my youth. How good and bad for you. It is likely also the case that you have no Latin or Greek and no, or little (if you were schooled in Canada), Imperial System. Such is progress, and on it goes. I leave it to you to settle for yourself whether this is a good or bad thing. And I do hope that your education has at least provisioned you with the mental furniture you’ll need by way of support as you sort out this and other impossible questions.