When Will We Stop Writing?

I keep seeing people debate whether or not kids should learn to write in cursive. I hear it from my wife who’s a teacher. I see it in my social media streams. I see advocates on both sides from both boomer generations and teenagers. My social barometer tells me that the “we don’t need to teach it” camp is a slight majority, which makes sense since the argument is basically over. They don’t teach cursive to kids in most schools anymore.

The most common arguments on each side are pretty simple:

Yes We Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • It’s important for future generations to be able to read historical documents like the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, etc.
  • Writing in cursive is an art form that allows people to share their personality and communicate in a more personal manner
  • I had to learn it, why shouldn’t my kids
  • You have to be able to write in cursive to sign a document

No We Don’t Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • No one writes that way anymore, its an unnecessary secondary “font”
  • Historical documents have been copied and are available digitally in non-script, I can appreciate the original without having to be able to read it
  • One way of writing a language is enough
  • It wastes unnecessary time to teach cursive, when teachers should be focused on more important things

But were not going to debate whether or not kids should learn cursive. That’s basically been settled, since few school districts require it anymore. I will mention that my wife at least teaches her students how to sign their name, but that’s it.

The reasons on both sides are compelling, but led me to think that some of these exact same points could be used in a future conversation about writing in general. I’m not saying that we will ever get completely away from communicating via written text, but I do wonder about our proclivity towards physical penmanship in the coming years. I mean, I’m writing this in a text editor. And maybe the problem then is how our concept of the word “write” still conjures an image a person, pen in hand, scribbling on a sheet of paper. We still presumably will always need to know how to “write”, but thinking about the traditional definition we realize people just don’t physically write anymore.

Let’s revisit the rationale from cursive only in the context of written words:

We Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • It’s important for future generations to be able to read documents like the Declaration of Independence, original Constitution, etc.
  • Writing is an art form that allows people to share their personality and communicate in a more personal manner.
  • I had to learn it, why shouldn’t kids?
  • You have to be able to write to sign a document.

We Don’t Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • No one writes anymore, it’s unnecessary.
  • Documents have been copied and are available digitally in audio/video clips, I can appreciate the content without having to be able to read it
  • Being able to communicate is enough, I don’t need to write to communicate with friends, family, coworkers
  • It wastes unnecessary time to teach hand-writing, when teachers should be focused on more important things

I know that seems pretty absurd. It does to even me, and I wrote them. But, it would seem that writing by hand, by text, keying letters… may not be necessary at all in the future for a lot of people. Even today people are communicating less and less using written characters, because they don’t need to.

In fact, the only writing most people do is in the form of emails and text messages. And even those are being disrupted by features in messaging software like audio messages. It’s now just as simple to send a snapchat video message to someone as it is to type something out. When it inevitably becomes as frictionless to send an audio/video message as it does to send a text, is that when we stop writing?

Think about writing historically; it’s primarily a form of communication that 1) preserves information, and 2) allows for communication across geographies, where speaking in person isn’t possible. And in both of those cases, we can preserve video and audio just as effectively as written text, and messaging is just as efficient than anything written these days.

So I see two big questions coming from this trajectory.

  • Do we stop teaching hand writing? How long will we need to learn how to physically pen letters and words into paper? Will kids skip writing on paper and begin going straight to typing on computers and tablets? If I can recognize the symbol for the letter a on a screen when I’m learning letters, and again on a keyboard when I want to use it in a word, is there really any need for me to learn how to use my hand to craft the symbol on paper?
  • Do we end up minimizing teaching writing entirely? How long will we need to learn to use letters and words in general to communicate, as spoken audio and video communications become more adopted and accessible? In a world where learning comes from books and audiobooks instead of readable pages.

OK, so where does writing fit then?

So if we go down the path of basically all communications and learning being driven from audio and video, where does writing actually fit into our culture? Our ability to write allows us to put thought into what we are communicating. But how often are people communicating something complex or detailed enough that they actually need to plan and edit?

Thus, the biggest case I see for writing is when you’re compiling something thoughtful. Something long form. Something you need to think about, edit, add, rearrange. Just like this article (which I’ve edited quite and rearranged quite a bit). If I just sat down and talked into a camera and microphone it would be a mess, and editing audio and video is exceptionally time intensive.

It’s a crazy thought. And I like words, typed words and hand written words alike. It’s just a crazy thought that feels like it could be closer to reality than maybe we realize. What do you think?

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