Who Needs Handwriting? (Ep. 235)
The digital age is making pen and paper seem obsolete. But what are we giving up if we give up on handwriting?
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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Let’s pretend I tell you something and I want you to write it down. What do you do? Do you reach for a pen and paper? Do you type it into your computer or your phone? Do you maybe use your phone to make an audio recording that your phone can then automatically transcribe into text?
MUSIC: The Fog People, “Feel Like” (from City of Night)
What are we talking about anymore when we talk about “writing something down?” Is that as outdated as saying that you’re going to “dial” a phone number — which a lot of people still say even though phones haven’t had dials for a long time? Is handwriting a technology that served its purpose until something better came along? Or is it an essential part of who we are, how we process information, how we think?
That is our question of the day here at Freakonomics Radio. When we asked you, our listeners, to tell us what you think about handwriting, it was immediately clear that there is no consensus.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS: Writing by hand is expressive and personal and connects the part of my brain that is creative and is seeking the answer.
TOM ALLEN: I still take notes all day long, but they’re full of screenshots, because the software’s very visual these days. So, welcome to the future. I don’t miss the pen and the paper.
MICHAEL RICCARD: I still prefer cursive since it helps me to remember things and is a distraction-free form of note-taking.
JETT HANNA: I don’t see why handwriting should be mandatory in school anymore.
HEATHER DRAPER: I have to write everything down. Every note that I take in class I handwrite.
ASHER ISBRUCKER: I type far faster than I write and I find when I write, my hands can’t keep up with how fast I think.
I’m guessing that you identify with at least one of these people. Maybe you love every curly letter as it pours out of your pen. Or maybe you’re still scarred by your childhood handwriting failures, as some of us are. In any case, today we will get into the science of handwriting. And is the pro-handwriting movement the sinister position of … hey, can I get some dramatic music, please?
MUSIC: Dmitry Efimov, “Danger Zone”
Is it the sinister position of Big Pencil and Big Pen? And we visit a shop in New York with a very specific product line.
CAROLINE WEAVER, proprietor: New pencils, rare pencils, antique pencils, novelty pencils, pencil accessories, books about pencils, really beautiful sharpeners…
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MUSIC: The Hitchhikers, “Mr. Fortune”
How much has our written communication been changing?
MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Contemplated Design”
The U.S. Postal Service tells us that Americans send just over 20 billion first-class pieces of mail a year, which sounds like a lot. But just a decade ago, we sent well over twice as many, roughly 46 billion. What about e-mails? That number went from zero just a few decades ago to 205 billion a day, globally.
According to a study done by an online letter-printing outfit called Docmail, one in three respondents had not written anything substantial by hand in the previous six months. Our schools, meanwhile, have been reassessing how kids are taught to write. The Common Core is a set of standards and curriculum guidelines for U.S. schools that’s been adopted by more than 40 states. It still advocates learning to print, but it doesn’t even mention cursive. To some people, this is an abomination.
SHEILA BUTT: There are counties who are teaching cursive writing and counties who are not. Now that was unbelievable to me. That we would graduate students who could never read a founding document.
In 2014, Tennessee state legislator Sheila Butt introduced a bill requiring all elementary schools in her state to teach cursive.
BUTT: I have right here the Declaration of Independence. I’m thankful that I can read that. And I have a Bill of Rights and I can read that. And I believe if we’re going to educate our students, that they deserve a right to know what’s in their past. They need to know the traditions and the founding documents of this country and they need to be able to read those.
Now, Butt’s argument may strike you as fairly narrow — we don’t all learn Hebrew in order to read the Bible, so do we really need to learn cursive just to read the Declaration of Independence? But she is right that the handwriting is on the wall for handwriting, at least for cursive.
Back in 2006, when the SAT exam introduced a new handwritten essay question, only 15 percent of the students wrote their answers in cursive. Some schools do want to preserve the tradition of cursive, even if it’s not utilitarian: one district in Ohio has moved the instruction of cursive into the art department.
So there does seem to be a massive decline in handwriting, especially cursive handwriting. Does it matter? Might there be some hidden costs worth thinking about?
ANNE TRUBEK: There’s some very solid research, and it’s called “the handwriting effect.” And that is: students who have more legible handwriting do score better on tests. And this will be true of high-stakes tests as well.
TRUBEK: I was a professor at Oberlin College and my focus was on the history of writing and writing technologies.
So Trubek says the “handwriting effect” research shows a correlation between good handwriting and good test scores.
TRUBEK: Not only is there definitely a more qualitative perception amongst teachers that kids with better handwriting are smarter, but it’s also been proven in research studies and it does continue to those tests that are very important and are scored anonymously.
DUBNER: You argue that we kind of connect penmanship to character and/or, really, learning and learning ability, right?
TRUBEK: Right. We, Americans, of the last hundred, hundred and fifty years, connect penmanship with individuality, with our sense of self. And we also have a shared memory of being taught penmanship as a very crucial part of our early schooling days. It’s very unique that way. I can’t think of many other things that so many Americans would share as a common memory that are alive today.
Hearing Trubek, you might think she’s an advocate for continuing to teach cursive, and for stressing good penmanship. But you would be wrong.
DUBNER: So, in 2008 you wrote an article for Good magazine called, “Stop Teaching Handwriting.” Talk about that for a moment — why you wrote the article and whether that was the beginning of something for you or the middle or, I assume, not the end.
TRUBEK: Right, right. That’s a good question. I’d say it was — it was really the middle. The impulse to write it came from watching my son, who was then I think in second grade, struggle quite a bit in school because he had poor handwriting. And I was very aware that in my son’s adult life, handwriting was going to be a very small percentage of what he needed to do. And yet, he was having to stay in every single day for recess of second grade because he got his Gs backwards.
DUBNER: What did that do to his feelings about school and feelings about learning generally?
TRUBEK: It was really detrimental. He really thought he was bad at school. I mean, I ended up actually transferring him to a private school and this was a lot of the reason why. And they said, “Oh, you know, ‘he’s school-damaged.’” And it also worked on him cognitively so that he started to believe that he didn’t have any good ideas because the difficulty of technically being able to make a letter was transferred to a difficulty expressing himself.
DUBNER: So, you wrote this article that was influenced by your son’s trouble in school learning writing, but you made a broader argument that what?
TRUBEK: My argument was that elementary schools were putting too much emphasis on penmanship in their curriculum and that it should be de-emphasized given changes in technology and the idea that it was going to be preparing kids for the future was more questionable.
DUBNER: So what was the response like to your article?
TRUBEK: It just went viral. And the comments were extraordinarily nasty and negative. A lot of it was, you know, sort of I’m a bad mother, if I really cared I would spend more time teaching my son how to write correctly or things like that. And that I didn’t understand the importance of education and knowledge. And then there was a lot of, you know, “what’s next, we’re all going to have computer chips in our heads” sorts of slippery-slope logic comments.
OK, a couple of things. First of all: I personally see nothing wrong with having computer chips in our heads, as long as they can’t be hacked too easily. Just saying, for the record. And number two: as attached as some people may be to the notion that handwriting is a vital thing to teach our children, that attachment isn’t as old as you might think.
TRUBEK: If we just talk about the United States, we’re really only talking about since maybe 1890 that you have this idea that all kids learn these things. It was not true before then.
MUSIC: Steve Rice, “Jesusita”
TRUBEK: I would say at the beginning of the 19th century, you have the beginning of more public schools where penmanship was taught. So it was always part of the American education, although there weren’t as many Americans being educated. And then in the middle of the 19th century, you have the first, sort of, franchised — penmanship franchise where Platt Rogers Spencer develops a script that is, he believes is religiously infused, and will make you become more moral, and more Christian, and in tune with nature; and it really sweeps the nation and everyone starts adopting that script. He would be replaced by Palmer, who is more familiar to us now, whose Palmer method comes around at the late 19th century; and it is aimed to be a more masculine and industrial script for the more industrial age. And then that becomes really the one way that every American is taught their scripts until the second half of the 20th century where it, sort of, fragments.
DUBNER: I see. And when did penmanship or handwriting become associated with intelligence and virtue?
TRUBEK: It’s associated with virtue all the way through and the virtue shifts as the culture does. And it’s certainly a sign of being upstanding to have proper penmanship.
MUSIC: Fullscore, “Mysteries of Ancient World”
It was not always thus. Writing was, for most of human history, primarily utilitarian. The earliest handwriting, cuneiform appeared 5- or 6,000 years ago.
TRUBEK: Often it would be, like, a receipt. I just gave you five sheep, here, I just confirmed that I received five sheep. People would use a stylus and they would make marks and incisions in the wet clay, and that was really the first writing.
DUBNER: And what does cuneiform look like to us? Does it look more like, kind of, shorthand than shaped letters that we would recognize?
TRUBEK: Well, they’re not letters, right? So it’s a writing system that uses — it looks like, you know what? A Golden Graham.
DUBNER: I do know Golden Grahams, yep.
TRUBEK: Yes, there was this great picture of a — cuneiform was often done on very small pieces of clay and the script is tiny, and so if you look at it, it can actually look like a Golden Graham. It’s just little lines.
DUBNER: You’re saying a Golden Graham would be, like the size of one of the little clay tablets?
TRUBEK: Some of them are very small and the script is really small. It is smaller than what you have on a penny or a dime. Smaller than that.
DUBNER: Tangential, but can we agree that Golden Grahams are among the best cereals there are? Aren’t they great?
TRUBEK: You know, now that I think about eating them as little clay tablets, I’m really in favor of them. But for the most part it seems that most of the early writing systems that were developed — some of them were developed independently — were created for accounting purposes. It is really a very unromantic answer to anyone who thinks, you know, great literature and writing. They were to record those sheep sales.
DUBNER: Which tells us what about, let’s say, the teaching of that scripting, or maybe the practice? Were there only a few scribes who did it or do you think it was just so universally taught that it was identical?
TRUBEK: It was restricted, but it was far less restricted than it would be in Egypt where almost nobody was allowed to learn how to write. But to me it undergirds that idea that handwriting is not innately a way to express some inner part of yourself. The notion that handwriting is connected to our individual expression is a very 20th-century idea.
MUSIC: Crushed Stars, “Eyeliner”
So, the significance of handwriting has changed over the centuries, but so too has the technology. From clay to parchment to paper to screens. From stylus to quill to pen to keyboard and, again, the stylus.
As Anne Trubek sees it, moving from handwriting to keyboarding is a good thing, if only because it doesn’t penalize people with poor fine-motor skills or other issues that make it hard to write with a pen and paper.
TRUBEK: There is a truly democratizing effect to having students move to keyboards.
Rather than putting so much effort into handwriting, we’re freed up to concentrate on what matters most — the words and ideas. But, some studies show that the act of handwriting is better for the brain than keyboarding. Also: that we express more ideas when writing by hand.
PAM MUELLER: Hi, my name is Pam Mueller. I just finished my Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton.
Mueller was a teaching assistant in an introductory psychology class.
MUELLER: Usually I would bring my laptop to class to take notes in case students had questions later. But one day I’d forgotten it, and I took notes in a notebook. And I thought I got so much more out of the lecture that day than I had out of any other lecture, and I told him that after class.
“Him” being Daniel Oppenheimer, the professor teaching the class.
MUELLER: A few days later, he had a similar experience at a faculty meeting where he was typing notes, realized he had written everything down, but had no idea what anyone was saying. So since we had these parallel intuitions, we thought we should test them scientifically.
Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted a series of experiments at Princeton and UCLA. For instance, they would ask a bunch of students to watch a TED Talk, take notes on it, and then later answer some test questions.
MUELLER: We gave them a 10-question test that had both factual questions and conceptual questions.
But before watching the TED Talk, the students would be split into two groups: one that was instructed to take notes on a laptop; the other, by hand.
MUELLER: What we found was that for factual questions, there was no difference between laptop and longhand note-takers — they did equally well. However, for conceptual questions, the longhand note-takers did significantly better, about a half a standard deviation better.
The laptop note-takers were able to write down much more information — about 50 percent more. But, the information didn’t serve them as well.
MUELLER: And this appeared to be due to the fact that the laptop note-takers took more verbatim notes, signaling that they were processing the content less than the longhand note-takers.
Now, why would that be? Mueller’s argument is that because handwriting is slower, you’re forced to decide as you go what’s worth writing down. And this gets your brain engaged in processing the information as you go.
MUELLER: And when you process something more deeply, it’s more likely to stick.
There’s also the possibility that taking notes by hand is just harder:
MUELLER: There is such thing as a desirable difficulty, having a little bit of difficulty when you’re trying to learn something is actually beneficial and longhand note-taking might be just that for us.
But maybe it wasn’t the laptops per se that were the problem; maybe it’s how we tend to use laptops.
MUELLER: So, we wanted to see if we could get laptop note-takers to not take verbatim notes.
They considered a variety of ideas:
MUELLER: Like taping people’s hands together or slowing down their keyboard so they could only type as fast as they could longhand write or, you know, making them wear gloves. But ultimately, we went with the simplest, which was to give them an explicit instruction not to take verbatim notes — telling them that verbatim note-taking led to poor performance and to really try not to do this.
They redid the experiment, but once again, the people who took notes by hand did better. And what happened to the laptop note-takers who were told that typing verbatim notes would hurt them?
MUELLER: They took pretty much exactly as many verbatim notes as the uninstructed laptop students. So, it seems like that’s going to be a very difficult tendency to break.
Processing the information as you go — what we call encoding — is not the only value of note-taking. There’s also the external storage function. That is, creating a record for future reference. So if you have a chance to review your notes — which didn’t happen in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s first two studies — wouldn’t it better to have a more complete set of notes?
MUELLER: So in study three, we brought students into the lab, showed them lectures, and then we brought the students back into the lab a week later, and some of them were given 10 minutes to study their notes before we gave them the test. Another group of students was not given this opportunity, just to sort of replicate the previous design.
OK, so now you’re thinking, finally, the laptop note-takers will prevail! But no.
MUELLER: For the students who got to study their notes, the longhand note-takers still did better and, in this case, they did better on both factual and conceptual questions. So that was a huge surprise for us. But, it seems that if students didn’t process the content as it was being presented, just looking back at their notes later was not a good enough refresher for their memory. So processing it while it’s being presented seems much more effective than writing it all down and thinking, “I’ll just think about this later.”
MUSIC: The Wandas, “Forever and Ever” (from The Wandas)
Mueller is not a technophobe. She doesn’t expect, or want, laptops to go away.
MUELLER: My co-author and I do believe that if we could get people to use their laptops more like they are currently writing longhand, they would benefit.
But how to accomplish that?
MUELLER: I think that it might take some sort of more mechanical intervention like a note-taking app that only allows you to write X words per minute or something. Either that, or more training from a younger age about the best ways to use technology like a laptop in the classroom.
Or, is it worth thinking about a different kind of note-taking entirely — still written by hand, but much faster and more efficient that standard longhand.
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MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “The Guyver” (from Upgrade)
When we started work on this episode, I had no idea that people would be so rabid in their defense, or hatred, of handwriting. But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
If you write books, as I do, whenever you do a bookstore reading and you get to the Q&A session at the end, someone always asks: “So what do you write with? Do you use pen and paper? Pencil? A computer? A typewriter?” And I used to laugh off the question, but I don’t anymore; I’ve come around.
Because when something is going on in your brain and you want to transfer it to another medium, the means of doing that is important. Here’s a Freakonomics Radio listener named Mike Miller:
MIKE MILLER: I find that I generally use handwriting for starting creative projects or writing creatively, just for the fact that pen on paper allows you a lot more freedom to write and also computers tend to have a lot of distractions associated with them, such as pop-up windows and different formatting styles.
OK, for what it’s worth: I do just about all my writing on a computer. I do sometimes use pen and paper for outlining and for making to-do lists, which I do several times a day. And I print; I hated cursive when I was a kid and I hate it now. But all the real composing I do happens on a computer.
However, after I write something, whether it’s a book chapter or a script or a lecture, I always print it out and then do a very vigorous edit on paper, with a pen. Now, this may be as much about reading as writing, but for whatever reason, it’s easier for me to trim, and to reorganize the material, on paper, with a pen.
I appreciate that different people have different preferences. My own kids, one of them reads books almost exclusively on an e-reader, but prefers to write with pen and paper; and my other kid: he reads only real paper books, but everything he writes is on a computer. So I get the divide. Especially when it comes to preferences.
But when it comes to utility – to the need to write down information for whatever reason – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a hybrid? Something faster than handwriting and more organic than keyboarding?
MUSIC: The Surf Zombies, “Zombie Beach” (from It’s..a Thing!)
DENNIS HOLLIER: When I go around and I’m taking notes in shorthand, people always tell me, “Oh, my mother wrote shorthand,” or “My grandmother wrote shorthand.”
That’s Dennis Hollier. He’s a journalist in Hawaii who covers business and travel. He’s also a shorthand aficionado.
HOLLIER: I do a lot of walking-talking interviews. Especially for like nature stories and that sort of thing. So, you certainly can’t type away on your laptop then. And also, I find that even in-person interviews in general, a laptop comes between you and the person you’re talking to.
So Hollier was looking for a better way of taking fast, accurate handwritten notes. Cursive, even though it’s faster than printing, wasn’t nearly fast enough.
HOLLIER: When it comes to speed, cursive is only about 10 percent faster than printing. That’s because cursive letters are often more complicated than print letters. The only speed advantage is that you’re not picking up your pen as you go.
Hollier taught himself shorthand from an old textbook he found in a used-book store. It taught the Gregg method. Gregg was one of many shorthand systems:
HOLLIER: As long as there’s been people taking down notes of their — you know, the vizier or the king or the court or whatever — they’ve had to write in some kind of shorthand and so there are literally thousands of versions of shorthand.
Eventually, there were some winners.
HOLLIER: You ended up with a few, let’s call them, popular systems. So there was Pitman shorthand and Gregg shorthand.
These two shorthand giants pretty much divvied up the world.
MUSIC: Tony Flynn, “Air Patrol”
HOLLIER: You know, kind of like the Portuguese and the Spanish divvied up the world. The two systems, Gregg and Pitman, were in great competition because these weren’t just systems of writing, these were big corporations and they were fighting it out for publishing rights in schools and certification programs and that sort of thing.
Which makes it sound as if shorthand was big business. And, for a time, it was.
HOLLIER: Every high school in America used to teach Gregg and certainly every business school that you went to, and all the universities would have Gregg courses. It was major career path for women, of course.
Because back when women had such limited career options, they were often steered onto a secretarial track. And in the pre-computing age, shorthand was a key secretarial skill.
HOLLIER: The typical person writing in cursive, probably writes maybe a shade over 30 words a minute. I would say my average speed is let’s say, 115, 120 words a minute.
Now, that’s considerably faster than most people type. So how does it work? How does a shorthand system, like Gregg, allow you to write so fast?
HOLLIER: I should point out that maybe the most obvious speed gained in shorthand is that it’s phonetic. You don’t write any letters that aren’t there, that you don’t hear.
OK, got it, no wasted letters. What else?
HOLLIER: The letters in Gregg are just much simpler than the letters in the Roman alphabet, which is what most of us use. Where if you take a “b”, for example, even if you write in cursive, a “b” is an upward stroke, a downward stroke, a little loop at the bottom, and a little ligature to connect to the next letter. So that’s one, two, three, four strokes to write to one letter. In Gregg, it’s a simple downward stroke of a curve open to the right.
Then there’s what are called blends.
HOLLIER: Not only do you not pick up your pen between letters in a word, but frequently you put together words into phrases. These are very common phrases that we use constantly. And because we know that they go together constantly we can write that all in one fluid string of strokes. For example, the expression “it will be” in Gregg is written in three quick strokes that you don’t pick up your pen, so it’s as fast as writing the letter “H”, for example.
Gregg also uses something called short forms.
HOLLIER: … which is a form of abbreviation, I guess you could say, where for very common words, you can often write them with a single stroke. So if you write the letter “R”, for example, by itself, it can be the word “our” O-U-R, the word “hour” H-O-U-R, or the word “are” A-R-E.
MUSIC: Brain Salt, “Can’t Get Through” (from Crowds)
All this efficiency adds up to huge speed gains. So if your goal is to write down a lot of information accurately, shorthand would seem to be a great system. And when you think about it, isn’t it a little nuts that the handwriting we all learn in school — whether it’s printing or cursive — is based on ancient letters that require so many strokes? Why didn’t we all just learn shorthand instead? And maybe it’s not too late?
TRUBEK: So what you’re saying is that everybody learns shorthand instead of the alphabet?
That’s Anne Trubek, the handwriting scholar.
TRUBEK: I think if you’re talking about maximum efficiency, then maybe you’re right. And you’re stumping me here.
Yes! I have at least one vote for my idea.
TRUBEK: Yeah, shorthand — to me, it’s fascinating and I love it ’cause it’s, you know, a sort of subculture of language and writing, but I never thought about it could have just been — yeah, it would have been the new alphabet.
Alas, we went instead in the opposite direction. Rather than taking over the world, shorthand was marginalized. It’s still learned in some places. In Britain, for instance, many journalists still routinely use it.
But for the most part, the shorthand boom is long gone. Dennis Hollier tells us that not a single American high school still teaches the Gregg system. What killed it off? Modernism, in various forms: the stenography machine, the Dictaphone, and of course the personal computer. A boss no longer needed a secretary to take his rapid-fire dictation and type it up later; now he put down his brilliant ideas all by himself on his desktop PC.
Hollier tells this story in a wonderful Atlantic piece called “How to Write 225 Words a Minute, With a Pen.” So you’d think that Hollier would also be in favor of shorthand triumphalism. But he’s not.
HOLLIER: The problem is because it was designed for speed, people, as they become faster, their writing becomes less and less legible to other people. And more and more legible only to themselves. And even for those of us who understand Gregg pretty well, it can take half an hour to figure out five minutes’ worth of somebody’s shorthand.
And there’s another way in which shorthand may be less valuable than longhand. When you’re really fast at shorthand, you’re getting into verbatim territory – which means the encoding value of handwriting may disappear.
HOLLIER: I can’t look back in my mind and see my shorthand notes. And in fact, the way you become really fast at shorthand is not to think at all. You’re ideally – you’ve absorbed the rules of shorthand so that as someone is speaking, your hand is moving without you thinking about it. And so there’s no real processing going on there. And you have to stop every once and while and remember to try and be intelligent when you’re doing your interview.
OK, so there may be no perfect solution to a task like note-taking, and of course different people have different preferences. But here’s one more thing to consider: in a world where we all type more and handwrite less, our school systems still spend a lot of time teaching young children to perfect their handwriting. Wouldn’t that time be better spent on something else?
TRUBEK: I mean, I would say that if you perceive elementary education as preparing students for education, knowledge, citizenship, then there’s too much time spent on it. It won’t prepare them. It doesn’t set them up for what will happen to them beyond third grade, really. By high school many things are typed. So it does prepare them for more school, but not much beyond that.
DUBNER: How do you see the future of handwriting playing out?
TRUBEK: It will continue to diminish in our everyday lives as people go about our business and as workers as it has already. It will become, um, more of an art form, in both education and outside of, traditional curriculum and will be seen more as a fine-motor skill. And then, also, you know, will have that panache of retro-cool, you know, in the short-term future like typewriters do now.
DUBNER: So, I have to say, if I am running a pen company. I do not like your message.
TRUBEK: Yes. Yes, I would think so.
DUBNER: So, “Short pens” is the message of the day.
TRUBEK: Short pens, and when you read studies about how cursive helps you become smarter, look to see who funds those.
DUBNER: Ah. Tell me.
TRUBEK: Well, there are some very powerful companies that make their money off of penmanship and curriculum and they also fund research studies.
MUSIC: Russell L Howard III, “Get Busy”
Some research, like Pam Mueller’s work on laptop versus handwritten note-taking, is independent. But it is true that the value of handwriting is often trumpeted by companies who stand to gain from keeping handwriting in schools and elsewhere.
Zaner-Bloser, a top publisher of handwriting curriculum materials, has sponsored conferences and studies that argue for the importance of handwriting and cursive. The Bic pen company launched a public-education campaign to save handwriting. It’s called “Fight for your Write.”
And then there are those who defend handwriting, especially cursive, on the grounds that it is just a part of who we are.
TRUBEK: A lot of people really connect it to these ideas about being an educated citizen, and it’s hard for them to conceive that you would not consider being able to master print and cursive as a requirement for becoming an educated citizen of the United States. It’s very interesting to me to see the rhetoric they use; it’s often connected to other values like saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school each day or having school uniforms. You know, cursive becomes a sort of marker of traditional values.
DUBNER: But I mean, even if you hate handwriting and the teaching thereof, you can probably identify with that sentiment, right? I mean, there are certain things that we cling to, whether as Americans or humans or whatever, moderns, that we do only because they connect us to a past that is, if not better or richer in some way, is at least our past. So can you identify with that link to tradition and at least empathize with it?
TRUBEK: I completely understand it. If there is less printing and cursive done, it’s undeniable that there’s a loss. But if you look at the history of writing and you look at the history of technology, there was always loss with change. There was huge losses when the printing press was developed; there were huge losses when writing was invented. Socrates, he really worried about what writing would do to civilization because imagine, literally right now, if you could never look anything up. If you live in an oral culture, you can never look anything up. And your memory is vast, your ability to recall things in your head, as it were, is much larger than those who live in a literate culture. It’s another wonderful example of how we lose something when we shift from one writing technology to another. We have lost those amazing minds of oral cultures. But we have gained something really significant, which is writing and history and all the things that come with that. So, you know, my point is really, yeah, it’s sad and it’s a loss, but loss is part of change and things will change and it will be OK.
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MUSIC: Pailboy, “Suzie’s Dilemma”
There are some people, however, who act as if nothing has changed at all.
WEAVER: My name is Caroline Weaver, and I own CW Pencil Enterprise, which is a pencils-only shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. New pencils, rare pencils, antique pencils, novelty pencils, pencil accessories, really beautiful sharpeners, books about pencils.
DUBNER: So, who comes here?
WEAVER: We have a lot of journalists who still do things the old-fashioned way. A lot of architects who like to do their initial drawings in pencil. A lot of pencil enthusiasts, people who just like analog tools. A lot of students. We get a lot of kids in after school, like around 3:30, who come in because they discovered a pencil here that is way cooler than the ones they have at school, and it’s kind of a fun novelty for them. And we have a lot of people these days who are calligraphers, or hand-letterers because hand-lettering has become a really popular thing. And I hope that trend will maybe help bring back handwriting.
DUBNER: So you are super pro-handwriting. Is it out of nostalgia primarily or no?
WEAVER: I think it comes mostly from personal experience. That’s just the way that my brain works. If I don’t physically write it down, if I can’t see it visually on something physical, then I just don’t process it the same way. I really very strongly believe that handwriting and learning handwriting in school is really, really crucial. There have been so many studies on the importance of it and how writing by hand — especially when you’re learning to read — stimulates your brain and kind of allows those things to be easier. They say — a lot of people also say that it helps you learn better, to kind of be writing physically. And especially cursive. And cursive is very quickly disappearing from schools.
DUBNER: And you don’t like that.
WEAVER: I don’t like that, no.
DUBNER: Now, I’m not saying this is necessarily 100 percent true, but what would you say if I told you that studies that highlight the value of handwriting for cognitive growth, et cetera, are funded by, like, pen companies.
WEAVER: I would be OK with that. Because at least somebody’s doing it.
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OK, so Caroline Weaver is not interested in debating the value of handwriting. Which is her prerogative – and yours as well, if you’d like. But let me say this about Caroline Weaver. She knows more about pencils than – well, I bet she knows more about pencils than you know about anything. Certainly more than I know about anything.
Which got us to thinking about a very famous essay – famous, at least, in the world of economics — called “I, Pencil.” What’s that? You’ve never read “I, Pencil?”
MUSIC: Johnathan Still, “Bowser the Cheat”
Well, you have a treat in store. Because next week on Freakonomics Radio, we revisit “I, Pencil” and see if its earth-shattering message still applies today. You will also learn more from Caroline Weaver, and others, than you ever thought there was to learn about pencils. Plus, we’ve got something exciting planned for April. It’s self-improvement month at Freakonomics Radio. Would you like to get better at playing a musical instrument or maybe a sport? How about just winning at life? Or maybe finding the best way to beat your friends and family at games? A whole month of self-improvement, Freakonomics-style, coming up in April.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Alison Hockenberry, with help from Nigar Fatali. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, and Caroline English.
Thanks to everyone who sent in audio recordings of your handwriting stories. We got way more than we could use, unfortunately. The voices you did hear belong to Tom Allen, Heather Draper, Jett Hanna, Asher Isbrucker, Mike Miller, Deborah Phillips, and Michael Riccard. You can find all our previous episodes here on our website; you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts and you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode:
Dennis Hollier, reporter, writer and shorthand enthusiast
Caroline Weaver, owner of CW Pencil Enterprise
“Stop Teaching Handwriting” by Anne Trubek. Good (Feb. 14 2008).
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek. Bloomsbury (forthcoming).
“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Psychological Science (June 2014)
“How to Write 225 Words a Minute, With a Pen” by Dennis Hollier. The Atlantic (June 24, 2014).
“I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. The Foundation for Economic Education (Dec. 1958).
Bond, a company that has robots that will write personalized notes in cursive on your behalf.