If you teach high school or college students, or have kids who are passing through those places, and if your duties include grading papers, or you watch your kids struggle with writing assignments, I have a piece of advice. Tell them to try composing by hand, with pen and paper, not on the keyboard.
I know, I know—this runs against most of what you and your students and children have been told. Every ad for the newest iPhone reinforces the supremacy of screens and obsolescence of paper. Many schools have gone all-digital all the time, such as Flint Hill in Oakton, Virginia, an Apple Distinguished School that gives every student an iPad or MacBook Air at an early age and whose dean of faculty told the Washington Post in 2012, “Tech is like oxygen. It’s all around us, so why wouldn’t we try to get our children started early?”
That headlong approach has been going on for thirty years now. Computers arrived when I was in graduate school in the late 1980s. Reactions ranged from practical interest (“this will shorten my time to completion”) to revolutionary fervor (“this is going to be as big as Gutenberg”). Office mates heavy into rhetoric and theory matched computers to cutting-edge cultural studies (a leading book back then was Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology). They warned us not to fall behind. A buddy of mine dropped books altogether and tried to get a computer to write verse—good stuff, not doggerel. You didn’t have to be so intellectual about it, either. If you had two sections of freshman composition and papers to grade each week, not to mention a three-hundred-page dissertation to write, you looked for any magic that would reduce the comma splices and do away with carbon paper.
That was the first promise. Revision and proofreading would take a great leap forward. Students would fix punctuation with a couple of strokes. No more grabbing the white-out to paint over a mistake, blowing it dry, relining the page in the typewriter, and hitting the proper keys. With new software programs, students could click on a word they had typed on the screen and a list of synonyms would appear from which they could find a sharper term. Spell-check would highlight every error. With corrections now simple and quick, students would turn in cleaner drafts and lighten a teacher’s workload. (“A” papers take the least time to grade.)
So where are we now? Worse off than we were before. Students write faster with keyboard and mouse, but would anybody say that student writing has improved in the last three decades? Certainly the test scores say no. The SAT added a writing component in 2005, and scores have gone down every year except two of them, when they were flat. The ACT college readiness scores in English have dropped six points in the last five years (67 percent of test takers reaching readiness in 2012, 61 percent in 2016). With all the tools available to amend grammar and usage and spelling, twenty-first-century students aren’t gaining. They are writing more words than ever before, yes, because of social media, but more hasn’t meant better.
That’s because they’re doing more with the wrong tool. The keyboard isn’t an advance on the pen. It’s a step sideways, if not backward.
Think about the process. To produce a letter on the screen requires nothing more than a tap with a finger. You don’t make the letter; the computer does. You can’t work on the words without going through the circuitry first. You have visual contact, but not direct tactile contact. To write another letter, you tap somewhere else with a different finger. In a physical sense, it’s not really writing, a tracing out of letters to make words. It’s tapping.
With a pen or pencil, you make the whole letter, the mind directing the hand to push, curl, pull, and lift in a set pattern. On the keyboard, each letter is nearly indistinguishable. With the pen, every letter is distinct. Making a k isn’t like making an o.
This is especially true for the process of revision, which on paper is more craftsmanlike. You can cross out a weak verb with a flourish and inscribe another term right above it. You don’t just run the cursor over a paragraph. You sculpt it. On the screen, deletion and retyping feel like data input. We call it “word processing.” The pen moves more slowly, but that isn’t a drawback. Like other “slow” movements (slow food, slow reading, slow art), slow writing aims for a fuller and tighter relation to the object, a nearness of mind to the language it utters. The plodding process of “drawing” letters instead of tapping keys and telling a computer to draw them gives words greater intimacy and presence. The handwritten word is closer, and that makes a writer more deliberate with words.
Computer fans say that the flat and swift actions of the fingers on a keyboard mark an advantage. If they have had a course in theory, they add a Derridean jibe about the “metaphysics of presence.” Real doings take place in the mind, they say, and a faster, less differentiated labor by the hands enables the mind to realize its thoughts in print more immediately and pleasurably. How much better it is when the mind wills a word to appear and the body only has to drop a few fingers before the word materializes in a special illuminated space instants later. Creative intention works in higher gear. It doesn’t want to wait for a hand to scratch letters across the page. What does the physical exertion of writing out words have to do with the spark of imagination?
The opposite is the case. Technical tools can lead not to the empowerment of mind but to the alienation of labor. Marx famously identified alienation as resulting when the things a man has made no longer seem to belong to him. He faces the product of his labor as a “power independent of the producer.” He gets money for working, but cash isn’t as meaningful as the product to which he devoted his energy and skill. That’s alienating. It happens, for instance, when a factory worker performs the same assigned task over and over. The automobile that emerges at the end of the assembly line, he feels, has nothing to do with him. Manufacturers recognized this problem years ago and started to allow floor workers more initiative and input in the process. We want to have a hand in our products, as it were.
As Marx describes it, when a person’s labor “congeals” (his term) in an object that is handed off to the owner or delivered to the market, “it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” The language seems overdone, but not if you’ve ever watched a sophomore look at his own writing and try to revise it. His own words strike him as a foreign substance. “What exactly did you mean by that phrase?” I ask. “Um, I’m not sure,” he answers, squirming on the other side of my desk.
The computer edges youths closer to this alienated condition. They see the writing on the screen as their own, but not as much as they do the writing on the page. The words have gone somewhere else. Though you can change them with the computer’s help, they belong to the device. The very fact that they are out of your hands makes you regard them as less expressive of your self. Words, sentences, and paragraphs, cut and copied and pasted, are more commodity-like, ready to be sent to the teacher with a few clicks and taps.
And that’s the best reason to go back to words inscribed on a page. Words on the screen have the feel of finality before they should. The virtues of the computer—faster, easier, simpler—are vices when it comes to writing. The pen personalizes the labor of writing, reminding us that we are responsible for what we write. It tells eighteen-year-olds, “These are your words—be careful with them.”
Parents and teachers—I’m both—must reinforce the habit of handwriting by providing noble tools. I mean a nifty mechanical pencil by Montblanc or a sleek Parker fountain pen, along with a notebook and paper that encourage young people to imagine themselves men and women of letters, not “content providers.” We need to guide the rising generation to take writing more seriously, which is to say, to take themselves more seriously as writers.
Which, if we’re really serious, means a restoration of instruction in cursive.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.