The Writing Is on the Wall

Should we mourn the death of cursive handwriting?


Is the bounce tail of a cursive capital Z the thin line that stands between civilization and anarchy? Two years ago, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) set out to canonize a set of subjects and skills that all K-12 students are expected to learn as they prepare themselves for "college, workforce training, and life in a technological society." Teachers and administrators were surveyed, expert opinions were solicited, the public was asked to contribute its two cents. The end result is the Common Core State Standards, a comprehensively superficial roadmap designed to ensure the efficient, standardized, easily testable flowering of young minds.

By now, all but a handful of states have adopted these standards, and each time one does, a chorus of lament echoes outward across the land. That's because the Common Core State Standards jump straight from advising students to "compose opinion pieces" by means of "drawing, dictating, and writing" to advising them to "produce and publish writing" by means of a "variety of digital tools." That these  standards are designed to inflict millions of five-year-old bloggers upon the national discourse may seem bad enough, but what really has people alarmed is the document's failure to even mention penmanship, a fact that is being interpreted as penmanship's death knell. "The handwriting may be on the wall for cursive," ABC News advised in January. "With schools focused on preparing students for standardized tests, there is often not enough time to teach handwriting," The New York Times reported in April. "Educators warn of negative effects of not teaching cursive in schools," CNN exclaimed earlier this month.

Naturally, penmanship's greatest champions have been furiously typing testimonials to this archaic communications technology. In the Times, historian Jimmy Bryant worries that "a connection to archival material is lost when children turn away from cursive." A Tucson graphologist worries that those who haven't mastered cursive will make themselves easy prey to forgers. The Wall Street Journal reports that "writing by hand" can "improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development."

No doubt much will be lost if we abandon cursive completely. Without it, how will we be able to understand the full historical significance of Sarah Palin's motorhome? If we stop practicing looped descenders, will our fine motor skills be honed enough to thread needles and assemble motherboards in hellish Chinese factories? And what will we use to teach our kids the efficacy of valuing style over substance? As Vanderbilt education professor Steve Graham points out in the Journal, "People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting." According to at least one study he cites, visually impressive handwriting can elevate a "generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile" while sloppy penmanship "could tank it to the 16th."

In an interview at the blog Jane's Ride, handwriting teacher Kate Gladstone offers the most compelling examples of the dangers of poor penmanship. In 1965, she says, "a NASA satellite exploded during its launch because an engineer's ?hand-scribbled last-minute correction to a few lines of programming code left a semi-colon looking like a comma." In 1992, a pilot misinterpreted the poorly scribbled directional heading his co-pilot passed him and crashed their plane into the side of a mountain.   

In the end, though, isn't a freak air accident every 30 years or so a relatively small price to pay for freeing up more time to teach kids how to render their thoughts so clearly even machines can read them? Whatever apocalypse the death of cursive might bring is one we're already familiar with because cursive has been a graphic zombie for some time now. It started in the 1920s, when a growing number of educators began to conclude that teaching children to write via the "manuscript method," i.e. printing by hand, was faster and more effective than teaching them to write cursive.

"Commercialized systems of cursive writing are so entrenched in the schools throughout the United States that manuscript writing enthusiasts find it difficult to effect changes in educational practices even in the primary grades," Columbia University professor Thelma Voorhis told The New York Times in 1931, but eventually it caught on as the preferred mode to introduce children to writing. Cursive was rebranded as a more advanced—and thus less practiced—technique. This downward promotion, coupled with the proliferation of typewriters, mimeograph machines, and other new printing technologies made cursive less and less consequential. By 1967, the Times was running features in which educators were calling the ballpoint pen a "quaint artifact of linear culture" and predicting that penmanship would be "minimally useful to tomorrow's citizen of the world."

Of course, tomorrow's citizens of the world invariably romanticize the past. In addition to championing penmanship's positive impact on our fine motor skills and cognitive development, we also hail it as a source of profound self-expression. But it wasn't always thus. "It was print that endowed handwriting with its own, new set of symbolic possibilities; script emerged as a medium of the self in contradistinction to print, defined as characteristically impersonal and disassociated from the writer," observes historian Tamara Plakins Thornton in her 1998 book Handwriting in America.

Before cursive became a signifier of our souls, it was just a communications technology. And now it's been largely replaced by a more convenient and powerful one. That keyboards are colonizing one of the last bastions of handwriting should be cause for rejoicing, not despair. As long as we continue to use our refrigerators as a primary medium of communication with our spouses, as long as we can demonstrate our good taste and discretionary wealth in chic cafes via $19 notepads, as long as our public spaces are filled with giant empty walls waiting to be tagged by budding graffiti artists, hand-writing will persist. But why use it in classrooms? Surely the intricately choreographed finger movements and memory skills that touch-typing requires has a salutary effect on fine motor skills and cognitive development. Surely the challenge of expressing ideas far more quickly than one can via handwriting encourages one to think more intuitively, completely, complexly. Add to that an endless, effortless capacity to revise, a way to take more comprehensive, easily searchable notes. Even as a mode of self-expression, keyboarding is where all the innovation happens these days. Cursive gave us pretty loops and flourishes, an individuality perfected through tedious repetition, an effort to conform to idealized letterforms. The digital era has given us, for better or worse, emoticons, hashtags, and a vast array of acronyms, all of which adorn our utterances not just with flashy visual effects but more meaning, more nuance, more us. 😉

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.