To write or not to write … by hand

My father always thought good handwriting to be one of the foremost proofs of a good education and he was most certainly right, in his own time and way. Unfortunately, nowadays, you do not have that many opportunities to show off your good education by handwriting. Every year that goes by, the less I write and the more cramps I get in my arm when I try.

As an economist, concerned about input/output productivity, I have to question whether there still is a valid reason for including learning to write by hand in the general school curricula. Just think of the number of hours you put into that effort and then calculate the estimated number of letters you are expected to handwrite in the future where even your signature is perhaps about to be supplanted by a scanned image of your right eye pupil.

“Dear God, another economist gone mad believing life is just about efficiency!” I can hear the purist cry out. No, friends, I am among the first to acknowledge a real human need for inefficiencies but perhaps even from this perspective, we should be able to find more enjoyable and useful inefficiencies than writing—and also with much less potential for creating conflicts with our perfectionist fathers.

Many write-defenders will put forward the argument that it promotes coordination of mind and muscle. However, if this were the whole purpose of the exercise and if we look at what seems to be future needs for coordination, derived from the many hours children invest playing handheld games, then I would argue that what we have to do away with is single-hand writing. Forget about right handed or left handed, let Darwin work, and have children learn to write with both their hands.

“But writing helps you to understand the language!” Nonsense! That you do by reading, listening, speaking, and nowadays by typing. If you really must cling to writing because of contractual clauses carefully crafted by your writing teachers association, then, at a minimum, you should convince them to use those sessions to teach writing in Chinese.

Want your children truly to stand out and be able to master future technologies with the same flair as Cirque du Soleil acrobats? Let them then practice to write with both hands in Chinese and Arabic, simultaneously, while humming Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'.” That should do it!

But my purpose is not to eliminate writing as an art form but to recapture it as a true art form. You know how much I worry about how the world seems incapable of creating new good-paying jobs. Well, limiting the teaching of writing now allows us to visualize in a couple of years the resurrection of the profession of writing clerks. May I offer you my services then?

What on earth has this to do with the World Bank? If you can’t figure it out, you should not be in the business of development!

A quite interesting spin on this same issue is made by Willam Easterly in his book The Elusive Quest for Growth, since when he argues that “the productivity gains of the computer are slow to be realized . . . because there are still too many traditional people out there with ink and paper,” he is actually making the point that perhaps we should prohibit handwriting as such, so that the world can move forward. [Jim, my editor: “Plato suggested—I suspect jokingly—that the invention of writing was a bad thing that ruined human powers of memory.”]

In the WBG cafeteria, we read that by using its napkins made with 100%-recycled paper, the WBG Food Services was proudly saving 268 trees annually, 110,000 gallons of water, 47 cubic yards of landfill space, 65,000 Kwh of electricity, and 945 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. As the WB Board’s 100% paper-intensive proceedings alone might consume several times these “savings,” not being able to write by hand could presumably also have some favorable environmental implications.