Languishing Longhand

MOST students have bad handwriting. That unremarkable finding comes from a ''straw poll'' of secondary school teachers conducted (where else?) on the Internet. Aside from our suspicion that the Internet is no place to find experts on penmanship, the poll raises some intriguing questions.

According to the 30 or so teachers from various parts of the US that participated, 80 percent of their students in grades 6 to 12 still submit their assignments in longhand. Could it be that large numbers of kids don't have access to a typewriter, much less a word-processing computer? Or are there legions of Luddite instructors out there still insisting, in 1995, that handwritten drafts be submitted?

Consider the students' position. Somewhere in every teenager's memory are those early grades spent laboring over a capital ''S'' or small ''g.'' Handwriting took years to partially master. Shouldn't it be used for as many years as possible?

Traditionally, legibility vanishes long after high school, when scrawled, unreadable signatures become, for some, a badge of success. Maybe the growing illegibility noted by teachers in the poll (which was sponsored by a very interested party, Papermate) is a sign of adolescent swagger.

More likely, it's a sign of tension between old skills and new capabilities. Will handwriting completely disappear? Or does the act of seizing a pen or pencil and forming thoughts on paper have a satisfaction - and often an immediacy - that can't be beaten?

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