Podcast: Freakonomics “Who Needs Handwriting?”

I know putting up posts like this is like throwing a roman candle in a pile of dry tinder but I don’t want to be the only one on the soapbox today. So, please join me! Take a listen to today’s episode of Freakonomics where the hot button topic is whether or not we need handwriting. Our pencil friend and favorite purveyor of graphite Caroline Weaver from C.W. Pencil Enterprise even gets a shoutout. Get riled up and leave your opinions in the comments!

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  1. I started listening to this story. The first thing that got me was called handwriting technology. It might fit the spirit of the definition, but it doesn’t entirely. Handwriting is more likely a cultural adaptation using tools. Yes that circles back to technology. But would a person working in a technological field call a pencil and paper technology?

    I kept listening until it got to the college professor who talked up good writing as correlating to intelligence, but does not support teaching cursive. Her reasoning was a personal story of her grade school son who struggled with poor handwriting and wrote backward Gs.

    She pulls him out of that school and puts him in private school. Really? She or her husband (if there is one) couldn’t spend the time with the child to help him write a G?

    I stopped listening there. Couldn’t use anymore of my time that way. I sit here using technology and one finger to write this. Next I’m going to get my Kaweco dark brown sport pen, that I got because you featured it, and write with it. I used a syringe to fill an empty cart with J Herbin scented rose ink. Got my fingers messy, but Lava soap and water cleaned away the ink.

    I’d really like to know what you thought of the broadcast.

    1. I went back and read most of the rest of the story. Glad to get to Caroline Weaver. I read some comments too.

      One pointed out taking good notes and wished a teacher would have taught him that. I’m old enough that there were no laptops in school. Taking handwritten notes forces you to listen and write down what you deem is important. Yes, sometimes you miss things. But mostly, you have a very good set of class notes that prepare you well for exams if you study them before the exam.

      Every once in awhile someone feels the need to write about the approaching death of paper and pens and pencils. A good story that gets some readers. But where is that paperless office we used to hear about?

      I still want to read Ana’s soapbox comments.

      1. I got to the same point in the story that you did and got angry, then went back to finish it only to discover its a two-part episode! I can’t have a full rant until I hear the rest of the episode next week. I am glad they included Caroline but I am a bit miffed that they dismissed her loyalty to handwriting as arcane. More rant to come!

  2. Promoting the end of handwriting is another mechanism of indoctrination used divide the young from the old. In the end, the dividers end up with an additional benefit, the illiterate are easier to control.

  3. The difference lies IMHO, on the country and state of development its in… In India where literacy is an issue having the ability to read and write is invested in irrespective of ones wealth as for all people it’s a way to have a future. Despite the tech revolution here the explosive growth in mobile ownership, literacy is still key. To ensure literacy you need affordable and easily available instruments (pens, pencil, paper) to ensure this growth…. So is handwriting dead… Not here or in most developing nations… It is the bedrock of individual economic and social growth. So a debate of this kind, to me, is a luxury.
    However, being a person who is immersed in tech as all companies need it to run the business I also use analog materials for daily use… Fountain pens, pencils and paper…


    Especially since I’m aware of and immersed in the technical benefits of computers/smart phones and the various productivity apps etc….

    For a start it is all about accessibility, speed, knowledge, expression, customisation, personalisation, skill, art, memory and pleasure at another.

    At the core it is only about being myself and individual.

    Handwriting as a necessity may be driven out of the school agenda for the best of reasons, but Americans as individuals will, I think, be poorer for having lost it. The IT industry and most enterprises depend entirely on millions of people transferring their entire lives to connected devices and anything, even something like handwriting that could enable an element of privacy and personalisation that cannot be accessed by IT becomes a threat.
    If handwriting is removed as a skill and is positioned as something that holds children back it will not be favoured

    . In developing nations it’s seen as the exact opposite an enabler. It will take sometime before the poor and illiterate will vanish from Earth, so handwriting is likely to survive and other nations will grow better economically as the proportion of educated and economically engaged people increases.

    I think that the people who are taking and influencing this decision to stop teaching handwriting in schools may have the best of intentions, it’s their choice to not expose children to one of the most human skills remaining, strange, especially in a country where the individual and individualism is held in such high value.

    Both my daughters are tech enabled and very tech savvy but I find it very interesting how they decided to look into my anachronistic analog hobbies and fountain pens and how they adopted the fountain pens … To use both to their advantage. I didn’t push them just let them try my fountain pens when they wanted… Their interest in inks, writing, calligraphy etc has developed according to their individual needs…

    The question is how can education create space for tech and analog skills and let the children and student decide how they wish to use them or not…. And not whether the days of handwriting are over…

    1. Thansk so much for sharing your perspective! I think you are quite right that it is quite a conceit of Americans to dismiss handwriting as being unnecessary when so much of the world still struggles with literacy. Very thought provoking.

  4. I pointed this out somewhere else, but what happens when you continue this line of thinking? Is literacy also becoming unnecessary? Podcasts and YouTube means I don’t have to read. Siri and Alexa means I don’t have to type. Maybe literacy isn’t needed either. But perhaps people who made their fame from a book wouldn’t think about that.

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this podcast – remaining baffled by the same things Lori expressed frustration with – also taken aback with how dismissive they seemed of people who think it’s important. When I was tutoring last year, 5th and 6th grade students, I noticed they had problems with printing. I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is the idea that we need a strict adherence to particular handwriting styles that are taught right now. When I was learning cursive, it was all about sticking to the model, a model that is unattractive and can be painstaking to write. Neither model seems to match our writing needs anymore nor do they help children when they’re taught for a short time and cast off quickly.

    Handwriting is still important. Because we do often write things down more than we think and not everything works right on the keyboard. I’m a big fan of the italic method taught my Rosemary Sassoon (and others) because it seems to develop more naturally and requires less taxing shapes and flexibility once the basic form is learned. But the people who hate handwriting only seem to see the Palmer and D’Nealian handwriting models as the alternative to typing.

  6. I have to be honest, I have yet to listen to this podcast. That said, I work in education, both as a teacher and an educational advisor, and I recognize this over-enthusiastic technology driven forward thinking. It goes too far, too fast. In Dutch we would say: it throws away the child with the bathwater: it destroys somehting that you don’t want to lose. Just google taking notes by hand vs computer and you’ll see that science is on it. Personally, I agree with Kerry, that being too strict on one teaching model may be doesn’t help. But as I teach in higher education, I’m no expert on learning how to write. Interestingly though, when I had to sit an exam myself, being a mid thirties professional, It was tough to do it by hand. We had to write short essays (1 A4) and I wasn’t used to formal writing with a pen anymore. I realized with a pen, I take notes, write diary and an occasional letter, but that’s it. Nothing that has to be up to any external standard. That was a personal epifany.
    And for the office worker part of me: the screen and wordprocessor kill creativity. I love to draw/visualize and mindmap my texts. And yes, I sometimes use software, but for me, nothing beats a paper and pen.
    So I think and hope we’ll have mixed practices.

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