Training the Hand to Train the Mind

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The Art of Teaching: A Conference for Teaching Men


November 9-11 • The Heights School, Potomac, MD

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Of all the subjects once taught in school and now abandoned, the one that probably would get the least support for revival would be penmanship. This is sad.

Gone are the days of graceful, legible letters, sliding across a page, of pens and pencils making the mind and body partners in that divine act — the formation of a word. Now it is just punch, punch, punch, with about every fifth punch the wrong one so his becomes hit and fate becomes face, so you end up with hit face instead of his fate. I remember my grade school days when Sister Mary Stephens made me copy rows upon rows of As, Bs, and Cs, and not allowing me out for recess until they were done properly. (And the nuns of old had a high standard of “properly.”) Today, if one puts forth the idea of penmanship as a serious scholastic subject, one is viewed with police suspicion. Why is this?

Well, of course the answer is computers. Why should my son waste his time learning how to form letters when he can simply punch it out on a “word processor” (which makes writing sound like sausage-making)? And, besides, what adult actually writes anything of consequence anymore? We are busy pecking and poking on keyboards, or tapping on (or speaking to) “devices,” which will then correct (we hope) any mistakes we might have made in spelling or grammar. The modern tendency is to say that because we have a technological way of doing things, that is a way that — supposedly — saves time and effort to get — supposedly — roughly the same results, we should jettison the old way. Notice what we’re concerned about: efficiency.

Efficiency — economy of effort — is fine, but it is not education. Education, you see, is not only about the what, but equally, and perhaps more importantly, about the how. Perhaps a more formal way of saying this is that education is not primarily about the acquisition and distribution of information, but rather more about the formation of habits of the mind. What is more, when we allow a lower good to replace a higher good, we lose both the higher and lower good. That is, when we view education as primarily the efficient acquisition of information — as opposed to formation of good habits of the mind — then, in the end, not only shall we not have good habits of the mind, but we won’t efficiently acquire information. (Notice I say we “acquire” information, as opposed to information simply being stored somewhere.)

So what does this have to do with penmanship? Well, I believe words are important. We  — most of us — use them to think. One of the “first things” of education should be the proper use of words. So I believe that everything about a word — its meaning, sound, history, formation, pronunciation — should be approached with reverence and awe. I suspect, if I may be so bold, that God agrees. God Himself has called Himself The Word. Remember our Lord’s words about, “heaven and earth must disappear sooner than one jot, one flourish should disappear from the law” (Matthew 5:18)? The words translated as “jot” and “flourish” refer to small parts of Aramaic letters. I don’t think our Lord was being entirely hyperbolic here. Remember the Jews were a people of The Book; that is one thing that greatly separated them from their pagan neighbors. The Hebrews’ faith and law were written down; in the case of the law it had been written in stone, by God. It wasn’t for them to be messing about with it, as they wanted to do in the case of divorce.

The medieval monks understood this, too. They labored over their manuscripts, not because copying was hard work (which it was), but because what they were doing was worth the hard work. Witness the glorious Book of Kells. By taking pains copying and beautifully embellishing the very letters of the word of God, they believed they were becoming one with The Word of God. There is something sacramental here. A sacramental is a visible, tangible sign for a reality that is otherwise invisible and intangible. I’m getting off track, but the point is that we must never forget our senses when training our minds and souls.

So, back to penmanship. If we want our boys to value words, then we should want them to value words in all their aspects, including how they are formed. Just as a meal is valued more if it is “formed” better — home-cooked, served on a plate, with the steak here, the potatoes there, the veggies on the side, the napkin folded neatly, the wine in a wine glass — than if it is put together more “efficiently” — processed and in a plastic wrapper with a paper cup — so a word is more valued if more care is taken in its formation.

All this takes time and effort. That should not surprise us. All good things take time and effort.

I am not adverse to all uses of computers; in fact, my old eyes appreciate it when grading fifty-some essays at the end of a term. Just as we insist, though, that boys know their multiplication tables before we let them use calculators in class, I think we should require them to write legibly before they start using computers. (Even after that, they should take notes by hand; it is a fact that those who write their notes in class retain more information than those who use keyboards. Remember what I said about losing even second things when you put them before first things?)

The Heights is an all-boys school, and it is easy to be dismissive about penmanship at such a place; after all, boys are “naturally messy.” True. All the more reason to insist on care and neatness in matters reflecting one’s person. Penmanship — one’s own “hand” — does take time, but it is time in which a boy must be slow and careful. Yes, you can punch keys faster, but a key punch is a key punch. There is no connection with the formation of the letter and the word. Your mind is not making the sound, forming the letter, sending it to your fingertips to reproduce that sound on the page. When a boy writes by hand, he, not a machine, forms a sound, creates a sound, and then a WORD. He makes his own words become flesh, and, thus, in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, he becomes a “sub-creator” with God. (It is telling that Tolkien, in creating the alphabets for his peoples of Middle Earth, had their scripts reflect their natures; the straight, rigid runes of the dwarves, the flowing, graceful script of the elves. It is true that a script reflects the nature of the person or people using it. This is sad news for a culture that cannot write but only punch.)

All this is pretty heady stuff for little Edgar as he writes rows upon rows of Js and Ks. He gets frustrated. Once he gets past a certain age, isn’t it too late? I would say not. A boy’s fine motor skills mature later than a girl’s, so it may be best to have boys practice penmanship into the seventh or eighth grade. Penmanship is also the natural scholastic counterweight to a boy’s innate precipitate nature. It must be done slowly, and carefully. It forces attention to detail, order, and deliberation. We even use the expression, “dot your i’s and cross your t’s” as a metaphor for taking care in a matter.

I became serious about my penmanship in fifth grade; we were studying the Declaration of Independence. I saw those signatures; bold, decisive signatures of bold, decisive men who were not ashamed of their deeds and knew the value ofhonor. They weren’t afraid to let anyone know their names. John Hancock even said that he wrote his name so boldly so “the fat old king could read it without his spectacles.” And to this day, we use Hancock’s name as a synonym for a signature. (And to this day I take care to write my signature neatly, even on a credit card receipt. It is I, Robert B. Greving, who is paying for this, blast it, not some meaningless number.)

Penmanship also fosters an appreciation of beauty. This may seem surprising, but if writing is an art, so is the act of writing. We have the boys take art and music class, and rightly so; why, then, balk at a subject that is another form of beauty and that bridges the gap between the visual arts and the literary arts? Penmanship is one art form that, barring physical or motor-skill impairments, a boy can learn to do well, and one that stays with him the rest of his life.

I find letters and scripts fascinating. There is beauty and joy in penmanship. There is the Georgian grandeur of a capital G; the precision of an i well-dotted;the defiant sword thrust of a t well-crossed; the sliding sibilance of an S; the effiness of an f looking like teeth biting down on a lip. Then there is the slash-swoosh-slash of a Z. Could Zorro have done what he did if his name began with a W? I think not.

There is another aspect of penmanship. It is a silent subject. Concentration is the door to contemplation. Remember the medieval monks and their manuscripts? In former days, schools and libraries were oases of silence; today, with all the screens and graphics and “click-clicking” of keyboards and “mouses,” they seem more like a cross between a video arcade and a chicken coop. If studying is a form of contemplation, or at least a stepping stone to it, then the two greatest hindrances to studying are haste and noise. Our culture seems based on hectic rushing about, images flashing by on screens, on instant messaging, “Instagrams,” and texting, all accompanied by buzzes, beeps, chirps, and rings of ever-new electronic devices. Is it any wonder we can’t study or pray? This is why the study of nature is so important at The Heights, especially in the lower and middle school. You can’t hurry an egg hatching, or a plant growing, and they do it in silence. This is also why penmanship should be studied. It is a bridge between nature and the books. In fact, Platt R. Spencer, the father of American penmanship who gave his name to the “Spencerian script” that would be the model for writing for so long, based his script on the graceful ovals and curvatures he saw in nature.

Penmanship also connects the boy to the disciplines of deliberation and silence. I would advocate a boy practice his penmanship for ten or fifteen minutes before studying. It will quiet his mind and slow his thoughts. (And if you are ever in a “huffy” mood, take some time to copy some verses from the Bible slowly and neatly; you will soon gain composure and perspective.)

Penmanship is personal, too. It is handcraftmanship in the most literal sense. The philosopher Josef Pieper says that the virtue of temperance is manifested in, among other ways, by one’s penmanship. This is not surprising given that in penmanship the instrument and the person are one. G. K. Chesterton was said not to have written his signature but to have drawn it, as befits a man who was an artist before he was a journalist. C. S. Lewis printed everything he wrote, with little to no re-writing; his lucid and logical mind setting down thoughts in lapidary fashion. On the other hand, computer fonts have all the personality of, well, a computer.

It is odd that an age so concerned about the “practical” in education should abandon so practical a discipline as penmanship. Odd, but not surprising. For we mean by “practical” that which is efficient, fast, and impersonal. There is no place for beauty, silence and deliberation. We can’t forget, though, that a human being is not simply a mind; it is a soul united to a body. To educate the soul, we must use the body. What literally connects us to words is the hand, that is, penmanship. By training the hand to form letters and words with care, we can train the mind to use words with care; and that should be a main concern with any education.

Robert Greving

About the author:

Robert Greving


Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from Dickinson School of Law. Following stations in Germany and the U.S., he pursued his love of classics, returning to Dickinson to study Latin and Greek. Before his position at The Heights, he taught four years at Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Pennsylvania. Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.