Writing Vs. Penmanship

At a recent holiday gathering I overheard a group of people from an older generation than myself lamenting about the decline of writing in the younger generations. The complaint went something like this:

“When I was in school we were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kids these days aren’t even able to write. The schools are too focused on the common core that they don’t teach script anymore! Can you believe it! Too many of these kids are not able to read cursive script!”

Yes. It is true that penmanship has taken a backseat to other concepts within the common core requirements and student handwriting has suffered as a result. There have been numerous times that I have received handwritten assignments back from students and had to spend time deciphering the squiggles to make sense of their papers. However, hearing this complaint raised a series of questions for me.  What is the purpose of teaching penmanship in the 21st century? In a world that is increasingly moving away from handwritten communications, in what way does penmanship serve our students?

As instructors we must be very careful not to conflate penmanship with writing. One of our main ideas in the Writing Across the Curriculum program is that writing is more about the exploration, organization, and expression of IDEAS. We divide the evaluation of writing into higher order and lower order concerns. Higher order concerns consist of a strong thesis statement, development of a strong argument using valid evidence, and the clear and concise organization of thought that carries the reader through the argument; meanwhile, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and the like make up lower order concerns when it come to writing across the curriculum. Lower order concerns need to be addressed but it is more important to foster the student’s development as a critical thinker than as a grammar machine. I argue that penmanship, in our increasingly digital world, is an even lower-level concern.

We are now living in uncertain times where digital literacy– the ability to navigate the digital world and question the validity of the “facts” presented there– is more important than ever. We have a responsibility to teach our students how to think critically about the worlds, both real and virtual, in which they live. As handwritten communication is evermore replaced by the digital, we must push beyond a mere nostalgic impulse to teach penmanship and prepare our students for the times that lie ahead.