Handwriting and memory

To watch University Challenge can be a reminder of how vital is memory for someone pursuing an academic career; but the same is true for any occupation and for the multiplicity of skills that contribute to communal life.

However, the training of memory in schools has for a long time been in danger of neglect, even in the teaching of languages, and even in the teaching of the Classical subjects. This has been one of the caveats about the Cambridge Latin Course: how can you know a language if you do not memorise the words? And how can you memorise the words if you have not been taught to do so by using the vital tool of connection? Philology may be a specialist subject, but everyone who learns language must be, to some degree, a philologist.

The Belgian woman who took us on a tour in Flanders pointed out what she called a brickery where First World War bombs had been found: she meant brickworks, but her coinage was a philological process, and her English was excellent.

To write something down in one’s own handwriting seems the most powerful aid to remembering it; and indeed handwriting, as American neurologists are now discovering, is a potent tool not only of memory but of creation and discovery.

The processes of the human brain involved here are scarcely yet understood, but their existence is familiar to teachers of our subjects.

A sixth former recently expressed disquiet at being discouraged from taking handwritten notes by one of his teachers—and he may well be right to do so. Even to watch a student taking notes—sometimes verbatim—on a keyboard reveals a process whereby the brain is short-circuited.  The words that he or she hears go by digital mode straight into typeface, without the student having to think about them at all. The screen and the keyboard can be an invitation not to use the memory, while handwriting seems to promote it.

Furthermore, to a student who has for years looked at screens, often with continual flashes of images lasting no more than a second, the brain has become wired not to remember what is seen.

Quite a number of educational innovations come from America on the wings of consumerist culture: they are going to make money for someone.  Now America, as H.A.L. Fisher noted in 1929, is a land of popular enthusiasms—of credulity and excitement, ‘an adventurous society, snatching at every novelty’.*  In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that in the minds of less experienced or less educated teachers, digital learning has come to be a talisman for advancement, able to replace the personal process of handwriting.

But America also produces some of the most advanced academic research; and studies in the neurology and psychology departments of their universities are starting to reveal that handwriting is not only irreplaceable—it is vital. (See, for a mention, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html).

Digital learning is perhaps a good servant, but a bad master. »

* H.A.L.Fisher, Our New Religion, Ernest Benn Limited, 1929, pp.98-99

See also earlier posts:
Vocabulary: practicalities
Vocabulary: principal parts