My daughter’s calluses may be the last signs of a dying art

The writer is the FT’s pop critic

It is exam season, and my daughter has two calluses on her writing hand. She is taking her GCSEs, the qualifications sat by most UK schoolchildren at 15 or 16. The calluses have resulted from weeks of revision, measured out in reams of paper crammed with French phrases, historical events, maths calculations and descriptions of how photosynthesis works — all penned carefully by her, like a diligent medieval monk in the scriptorium of her attic bedroom.

Schooling is the last redoubt of handwriting on an industrial scale. While the rest of us tap away at screens and keyboards, pupils continue to rely on the neatly looped letters and hasty scrawls of their penmanship. My daughter’s calluses illustrate the stubborn endurance of a physical act that dates back to the very dawn of human civilisation, when our ancestors moved from nomadic hunter-gathering to living in agricultural settlements. “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it,” as Seamus Heaney put it in his 1966 poem, “Digging”.

But handwriting’s scholastic fortress is under siege. Online learning during the pandemic pointed to an educational world in which computerised typing could displace calligraphy. Exams are moving in the same direction. England’s assessment regulator Ofqual recently announced plans to explore replacing pen and paper with online tests. The next generation of schoolchildren may risk repetitive strain injuries from excessive keyboard use, not calluses caused by holding a pen.

Romantics will observe these developments with dismay. Handwriting is a personalised form of script. The idea behind graphology, that you can tell character through writing, may be as wrong as phrenology, the notion that someone’s psychology can be divined by the structure of their skull. But there is a nub of truth to it. Your handwriting is unique to you.

In a school setting, writing by hand symbolises the personal conditioning that a student brings to their learning. This interpretative aspect runs counter to the trend of UK educational policy. The national curriculum has grown Gradgrindian during my daughter’s schooling, treating knowledge as utilitarian information to be memorised and regurgitated. Having pupils write on computers is the logical extension of treating them like computers.

Rationalists will dismiss all this as soft-headed nonsense. They will point to the arrival of typewriters in the 19th century as an example of the social progress that machine-writing can bring. The proportion of female typists rapidly grew in the US from the 1880s onwards, achieving near-total takeover of the workforce by 1930. True, much of their work was transcribing men’s words — but the machine nonetheless opened up clerical jobs to the foremothers of my daughter.

Typewriters also had an effect on personal style. An early adopter was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who switched from handwriting to typewriting in 1881 due to eyesight problems. He found himself adopting a different register, more clipped and telegrammatic than his prose in longhand. “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” he observed.

If that is so, then my thoughts have been digitally reprogrammed. I use a computer for writing. The only time I revert to handwriting is at gigs, scribbling in a notebook in the dark — a preference that marks me out as the Methuselah of pop critics. Younger members of the guild use their phones to take notes, fingers dancing over glowing screens. I am too clumsy to do the same.

For me, handwriting has mainly become a way of communicating with myself. But it is an inefficient form of self-communion. Many of the notes I take at gigs turn out to be indecipherable. If my daughter’s calluses symbolise the obstinate survival of handwriting, then my semi-legible jottings portend a foreboding future. When pens are banished from schools, all that will remain is a shaky retreat into a private form of script, with a readership inclining inexorably towards no one.

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