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Opinion: A Pox on Your Penmanship

With cursive becoming nearly extinct, what's next, asks our columnist—and what else do we lose with the convenience of modern technology?

Last week at the library, I watched as a little boy labored over a cursive writing worksheet. His eyebrows were pinched together in concentration while his tongue furiously worked his upper lip like a windshield wiper. Fingers gripping a stubby pencil, he toiled over the loopy letters. He was working so hard and, being a sucker for a hardworking little man, I commended him on his fine work. He smiled shyly, then went right back to his task.

Later, when the young writer needed help finding a book, I asked him what grade he was in. I hadn’t thought of cursive writing in so long I marveled it was still being taught. It turns out the boy was homeschooled and was, according to his calculations, "somewhere between third and fourth grade."

Wondering when, if at all, cursive is taught in the Moorestown school district, I called retired teacher friend Greg Bryan, who along with his wife Suanne (fifth grade teacher at the UES), was able to confirm cursive writing is still being taught in third grade. But the hard-and-fast penmanship rule that, from fourth grade on, all students must write in cursive, is no longer enforced. Most public school teachers now allow students to choose between printing and cursive, whichever they prefer. Papers are always done on the computer, however.

So, along with the typewriter, here’s another loss we can blame on computer technology: the death of cursive writing. Raise your hand if you care. The only thing that makes me sad about the diminished cursive skills of most Americans is that switching from printing to cursive was once a rite of passage. I hated the slow process of learning to execute those slanty, slope-y letters, but I knew once I had mastered them, I would no longer be a little girl. I would be able to fill my notebooks with signatures that varied not only in loop girth but in size and color as well. Turquoise ink! Purple ink! I was now ready for the grown-up world of forging checks, signing papers and penning manifestos.

Then along came the computer, and another simple rite of passage bit the dust. We don’t write love letters anymore, we send emails with a hasty row of "xoxoxo" tacked on. Kids in college and high school compose on their computer keyboards, then submit their work electronically. Their fingers rarely touch a pen, nor do ours, as check-signing has taken a back seat to debit cards and electronic banking.

If you have a soft spot for longhand, then get thee to a Catholic school, where cursive is still king. I spoke with Kelly Mulholland, a second grade teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel. She assured me good penmanship is stressed in grades two through eight, although the children only have penmanship workbooks in second and third grade. Still, from the moment they learn cursive, they are required to write in cursive.

So what does the demise of cursive writing mean to our society? Will it matter if children lose the ability not only to write cursive but to read it as well? We were throwing this topic around at the library when someone said, “If kids can’t read cursive, how will they read the Declaration of Independence?” I didn’t think that was the best example for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was a student of cursive and I couldn’t even pretend to decipher that historic document. Second, just pull up a copy on the Internet, written in plain old “American Typewriter” or “Times New Roman” and read away. How tragic, though, to come across a packet of love letters from your great-grandfather to your great-grandmother and not know how to read them because you didn’t know cursive.

At the risk of sounding old, this train of thought led toward other bits and pieces of our world that are dying a slow death or have vanished altogether, like the aforementioned typewriter. Children born in the late '80s and onward have no idea what a typewriter is. They only know the smooth, slight give of a flat computer keyboard. As a matter of fact, our children have never known a world without computers. Typing classes have been replaced by Excel and spreadsheet seminars. They won’t know the satisfying flicking of the return bar or the friendly clickety-clack of the weighted typewriter keys. Nor will they have to deal with correction tape, keys that stick and getting ribbon ink all over your hands.

Our kids have only ever known microwave popcorn, which is a shame because besides being much higher in calories, chemicals from the bag leach into every kernel we eat. A few kids may remember Jiffy Pop, but they've probably never experienced homemade popcorn, waiting for that first kernel to explode in the hot oil, followed by an eruption of corn, popping and sometimes escaping from the pot.

Most technology is good, like the remote control. Can you imagine getting up to change the channel every five minutes as you’re switching from game to game? On second thought, perhaps the remote control is responsible for our short attention spans and expanding waistlines?

Some educators still believe the act of writing in cursive—connecting the letters—helps children’s brains make other kinds of connections and may actually help them become better writers. Other people are convinced cursive is a dying art form and are happy to see it go. Steven Heller, a graphic designer for an online magazine said, “ … It’s no major loss. We’re losing a skill because of custom and technology.” I can’t help but wonder what other niceties are being left behind in the wake of our go-go-go lifestyles? Are good manners next?

Just in case you’re wondering, I did NOT write this column in cursive. 

Kate Gladstone January 28, 2013 at 04:56 PM
Is cursive an end in itself? Research shows: the fastest, most legible writers join some letters, not all — making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, using print-like shapes for letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citations: jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf and jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf ) Reading cursive still matters — it takes just 30-60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to 5- or 6-year-olds. Needing to read cursive is therefore no mandate for writing it. Further: cursive signatures have no special validity over other signatures. (Don't take my word: ask any attorney.) Yours for better letters, Kate Gladstone - Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and World Handwriting Contest HandwritingThatWorks.com
Max Fisher January 29, 2013 at 03:25 PM
I agree with Kate Gladstone's comment. I was allowed to print very early in my scholastic career, and it seems to me that if I can print as rapidly as any practitioner of the cursive style (well, almost), and it's more legible, then I don't need Mr. Palmer or his method.

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