It is Cadmus of Tyre who is credited with giving the Greeks–and, after them, the whole of Western civilization–this fabulous invention, the art of writing. To the ancients, writing was, given the scarcity of writing supports (clay tablets or, later, papyrus scrolls), a serious and grave act. The first written works that came down to us, aside from the bureaucratic Linear B tablets, are all written in verse, not in prose: the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also the Orphic poems, and it is said that Heraclitus, upon completing his treatise On Nature, dedicated it in the Artemisium. The latter example shows that the effort demanded by writing was considered on an equal footing with the other craftsmanships, and was well worth the gold dedicated to the goddess.
The tendency reported in many parts of the United States to demote writing and replace it with typing skills is worrying in many ways. The reason cited by proponents of such measures is that typing, and typing fast, is, in today’s computerized world, more important than writing. Writing is becoming, in their eyes, obsolete and ‘useless.’
This, however, seems to be the sole reason given to support the move to substitute typing for writing. But there is much more to writing, and to education in general, than simply being able to survive in the economic world. Writing is not about speed; in fact, writing demands patience and thought, both of which qualities are so crucially lacking today. Writing with ink on a sheet of paper requires one to think beforehand about how he or she will construct the sentence (syntax), what words he will use (semantics), and how the string of sentences will be made to flow smoothly together. Writing trains the mind to think and analyze, for once the sentence is written down, it is difficult to erase it, unless one leaves a dirty spot of ink disfiguring the paper. Computers, on the other hand, by allowing one to erase again and again what has just been typed, have simply removed all needs for such mental activity. I strongly doubt that it is to our benefit.
Writing is very much a personal activity. It is well-known that psychologists use hand-writing to decipher one’s personality, as in a mirror. Writing is ultimately tied to one’s character. Learning how to form well-rounded loops, to write slightly in italics, and to form letters even in size helps develop one’s own sense of order. It is, in other words, a gymnastics of the mind, and the same can be said of mental calculation as well. As each person is unique, each person’s penmanshift is equally unique–unlike standardized computer letters, each the same on a white dematerialized background. It is only ironical that at a time we are seeking ever more individuality, whether in original names, in individual rights, or in eccentric fashion, we are doing away with the most inalienable and unique feature of each one’s personality.
Cadmus, who brought the Greeks writing, also helped them build civilization, by allowing poetry and literature to be written down, and certainly helping philosophy and medicine to develop. It helps develop our “human-ness” by training our minds. Perhaps those who favor typing over writing will object that people can still create poems and novels by simply using a keyboard. Perhaps, but training one to be a more efficient technician does not make one a poet; and poets first need to look at the world through eyes that a keyboard does not give. Unless one is content to build a society in which men are only functions of the digital system, it is a priority to teach our children to write, and to write properly, so that all will have the chance to learn the value of creation–a creation worth much more than all the money generated in a click.