Friday, 21 May 2010

Letter writing, apparently its a good thing

It might be the heat getting to me, but I read this article in the Guardian today and was filled with a deep sense of grinding annoyance. I then checked in on Twitter to find that the world and their dog were whining about the fact that kids dont hand write letters any more.

The article claims it is based on a survey, but I'm willing to bet a small sum its actually based on a poll. Delightful though polling is it can be used to prove more or less anything and routinely gets deployed to do that.

It occurs to me that when I was 7-14 I rarely wrote letters. Occasionally I'd get bludgeoned into writing a thank you note at Christmas or for a birthday, but usually even on those occasions, I'd pick up the phone and speak to the kindly relative who felt that £10 would solve my ills in life.

The article cites Sue Palmer, a 'child education expert'. 10 seconds of Google reveals that one of her primary interests is the teaching of writing, so she's hardly an unbiased source. Also, she has books to sell. But I'm willing to set that aside, I'm sure she has children's best interests at heart. My real problem is that she says this:

"If children do not write or receive letters, they miss out on key developmental benefits. Handwritten letters are much more personal than electronic communication.

"By going to the trouble of physically committing words to paper, the writer shows their investment of time and effort in a relationship. That's why we tend to hang on to personal letters as keepsakes.

"The effort of writing is a very real one for a child. Painstakingly manoeuvring the pencil across the page, thinking of the best words to convey a message, struggling with spelling and punctuation. It is, however, an effort worth making, because it's only through practice that we become truly literate – and literacy is the hallmark of human civilisation.

"If we care about real relationships, we should invest in real communication, not just the quick fix of a greetings card, text or email. What's more, if we care about civilised human thought, we should encourage our children to invest time and energy in sitting down to write."

First of all, I imagine that the lack of letter writing holds true of virtually every person living in this country. I can't remember the last time that I sat down with a pen and wrote a letter by hand. What would be the point? Everyone I speak to has an understandable desire for me to be able to respond within 24 hours.

Second, what are these mysterious 'developmental benefits' of handwriting a letter? The only benefits I can see are that you'll have good handwriting. As we enter an age where all primary forms of communication (disregarding vocal) are typed, wouldnt the best benefit be to equip children with a skillset which would support that? Accurate and speedy typing skills will enable them to get better jobs and work more efficiently.

Thirdly, who the heck are you to tell me that electronic communications arent 'real'? All communication is real. This article reeks of a snobbish image of the poet, adjusting their glasses and setting quill pen to vellum, contrasted against a young person texting with one hand and picking their nose with the other.

I routinely communicate with people I've never met, other bloggers in particular whose ideas intrigue me, or who I want to question further. I consider those relationships real, but they wouldnt be possible if all I used was a pen.

This is compounded by the idea that children don't know how to lay out a letter, as if this is a bad thing. In truth, I'm sure if you quizzed me, I dont know how to layout a letter. I probably put the date in entirely the wrong place, should there be 2 lines after the "Dear..." line? I'm sure there is some rulebook which I break on a daily basis, yet no one has ever criticised me for my (typed) letters.

Finally, what is it that makes a letter 'good' apart from a romanticised image? I've signed a letter or two in my time with the intent to impress, and that option is still avaliable to me. I've even closed an envelope and sealed it with a S.W.A.L.K (I'll let you figure that one out). Aside from this romantic idea, letters are slower, less efficient forms of communication. They promote innaccuracy and waste.

I believe in the evolution of technology, and communications is a major part of this. Our ability to spread ideas with speed and accuracy is what has taken humanity from caves to the stars and will take us far further. Clinging to an outdated past, when that past is still an option for those who choose to partake of it, is foolishness in the extreme in my opinion.

Todays children, and indeed adults, may have lost letter writing, but we are more connected now than we have ever been in history. Right now, considering it quickly, I can call, email, text, tweet, Facebook message. I could fire up Word and write a sonnet, or sit and write the sort of profound insights this blog is awash with (seriously, go and read more of it).

Or, I could get a pen, find some paper (I dont own any A4 paper), an envelope and finally a stamp. I should point out that as far as I can tell my local Tesco doesnt sell stamps. I could then write the letter once, get it wrong, retry, get a few spelling mistakes again, and rewrite it. I reckon if I wanted to write a perfect letter with no corrections I'd need a minimum of 2 attempts. I'd also need to find out where my friends live, I have barely any of their addresses, why would I?

I am constantly in awe at the flow on information between me and the world around me, both from friends and from the wider world. I am endlessly deluged with a torrent of information which would be utterly impossible without the willingness of people to sit down and share their insight with the world at large. Letters are a selfish medium, shared between only two people, easily destroyed or lost, and their insights lost forever. There we go, my controversial opinion for the day, I'm going to say it anyway.

We should teach our children and each other to value the word, not the tool used to write it. To reach out and discover new mysteries of literature, philosophy and the grand ideas which exist out there. We should teach them to form new ideas, to write them down in any form they please. If we can teach them to share these ideas with others, to collaborate and develop those ideas to perfection then we will have succeeded.

The written word is only of value because of the ideas it contains. If you want to contain those ideas between only two people, then do so, write a letter, or send an email if you prefer. The medium is utterly irrelevant, the quality of the contents is the important part.

We cannot be hidebound, trapped in a romantic past which in truth, never existed. Children will not be 'better' if they can write. They will be better if they can communicate well, and that is the goal we should all be seeking to promote.

The pen was once mightier than the sword, but only when the pen was the only weapon in the hands of the writer. When Iranian people wanted to rise up against their corrupt and unjust leaders they turned to Twitter and Facebook, not to hand written notes. Across the world people can reach out to each other and form communities which have never existed before, and which never could have existed under the tyranny of the pen.

Anyway, I think I'm going to stop there, before I descend into the same presumptuous arrogance as the writer of the Guardian article. I'm then going to see how long it takes me to handwrite this blog post.

That last sentance was a lie.
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