Thursday, November 21, 2013

The endangered art of writing by hand -- Nov. 21, 2013 column


When President Barack Obama composed his thoughts about the Gettysburg address, he wrote much as Abraham Lincoln did 150 years ago.  He used pen and paper.
The White House Tuesday released both the handwritten and typed versions of Obama’s essay. Had Obama, or more likely an aide, simply typed the tribute on a laptop and hit Send, the text would have been just another news release.  Instead, many people stopped to read the handwritten page.

In our aggressively digital age, the handwritten note or essay may be as practical as a top hat, but no writing is more personal.  (OK, writing a check for the electric bill is hardly personal, but online banking has freed people from most check-writing.)
When we handwrite a letter, we send something beyond the words. Holding the same paper, the reader glimpses the fallible human being who held the pen.  For example, the president sometimes forgets to cross his Ts. This may not come as a surprise.

It’s rare for most adults to take the time to find pen and paper, wait for thoughts to flow and put them down – although we can. Sadly, we’re in danger of losing the art of writing by hand.

Schools long ago let penmanship slip. Cursive writing is so foreign that some children can’t read the handwritten letters their grandparents send.  Parents have to translate.

The Common Core educational standards for grades K-12 dropped penmanship in favor of keyboarding as an important skill. Everyone needs to use a computer keyboard, of course. Word processing is the inelegant term for what we do at the keyboard. We produce a commodity called content.

We moderns talk and type constantly, but our tweets and status updates are often out of our hands before our brain has registered the meaning of our words.

Must our choice be keyboard or pen? Why not both? Among the 45 states that have adopted Common Core standards, seven want to reinstate cursive writing instruction, the Associated Press reports. They are California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah.  

In North Carolina, the “back to basics” educational movement means that students are learning to write by hand and to memorize the multiplication tables.  Proponents say cursive writing helps eye-hand coordination and improves reading and writing. Critics say practicing cursive script is irrelevant, similar to using an abacus or slide rule. 

While that debate simmers, we all could learn from the presidents who believed in the power of the handwritten word.

Ronald Reagan was a prolific letter writer, penning thousands upon thousands of letters. In the White House, he turned his handwritten letters over to typists who prepared them for mailing. The former president was 83 when he wrote by hand the poignant letter telling Americans that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” Reagan wrote on Nov. 6, 1994. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” He died in June 2004. His letters have been gathered in several books. 

The letters of President George H.W. Bush, another prodigious correspondent by hand, were compiled in “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings,” published earlier this year.

Obama has had a habit of reading 10 letters a night from citizens, and he responds by hand to a lucky few.  Some recipients burst into tears and vow to save the president’s missives for posterity. Human nature being what it is, though, others race to see how much the letters will fetch from online auctions.

Speaking of which, earlier this year Obama’s half-brother put two of the president’s hand-written notes for sale for $30,000.

Such commercialism cheapens the seller but not the handwritten word or the writer. 

Obama’s handwritten essay about the Gettysburg address at 150, along with similar essays by several former presidents and other notables, will be on display at the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

You don’t have to be famous to pick up a pen and write. Your handwritten words are just as priceless.  

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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