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Losing letters and typing tweets

Published April 24. 2010 09:00AM

Some say advanced technology is hurting, not helping, the communications process.

People no longer know how to write letters, they say. In fact, people no longer know how to take a pen in hand and write anything at all.

What do you think? Is cursive writing becoming obsolete? Is letter writing outdated?

"It's too much trouble for people today," said Kathryn Davies. At age 75, she spent 60 years writing letters to her friend Iris Masling of Louisiana.

When I interviewed Kathryn last week for a feature story, it was fascinating to hear about her six decades of letter writing. Then we phoned her pen pal Iris to get her take on it.

Both Kathryn and Iris told me they don't use computers, and that may be good. Some say computers are to blame for the decline in letter writing.

"I think text messages and emails are ruining the art of conversation," said a friend. "People don't compose letters anymore. Everything today is instant and rushed. Messages aren't given enough thought and consideration," he said.

My friend Joe said something similar. Joe is in his 80s and retired from the biomedical field. He doesn't use a computer, something he sees as a disadvantage at times.

"The day will come when people who don't use computers will be left behind," Joe once told me.

Joe is probably correct. The face of communications is changing fast.

Letter writing is listed in a website that keeps track of obsolete skills. The website says cursive writing is a thing of the past. For example, school children now do their homework on computers.

I have mixed thoughts about that. For one, it's good if teachers don't focus so much on penmanship.

Handwriting was once so strictly taught - and in my opinion, incorrectly taught - that students received grades on it. Maybe that's still so, I don't know.

There was the Palmer Method of penmanship instruction developed and promoted by Austin Palmer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It soon became the most popular handwriting system in the United States. But left handers were forced to write with their right hand. That, to me, seems wrong.

When I was in school, students were drilled to believe that "perfect" handwriting had a slightly forward slant to it. Today I realize that a person's handwriting is so closely tied to individual brain function that forcing a student to write with a specified slant is unnatural. The penmanship of every person is not identical and students shouldn't be taught it is.

And do you recall when writing was used as a form of retribution or punishment?

The teacher would say: "I want you to write 500 times 'I will not chew gum in school.'" Good heavens. This practice reinforced the idea that writing is punishment. I hope today's teachers see the light. Writing is a precious skill to be valued and nurtured.

When I think back on some of these crazy practices from my school days, I recognize advantages of computer-generated communication and a healthy de-emphasis on penmanship.

On the other hand, when I see the strong bond between pen pals Kathryn and Iris developed over 60 years of letter writing, I marvel at the magic of the handwritten word. Do today's electronic tweets offer a similar opportunity for people to get to know each other? Are tweets and text messages the same as letter writing? What do you think?

Will the Box Tops change their tune and sing, "My baby wrote me an email?"

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