Editorial: The Craft of Writing
We suppose we should have seen it coming, but count us as shocked and dismayed to learn that cursive handwriting is disappearing from the American public school curriculum.
According to an Associated Press story that appeared in Tuesday’s Valley News, instruction in penmanship is dying out, collateral damage from the twin explosions of digital technology and standardized testing. “It’s seeing the writing on the wall,” Patricia Granada, principal of Eagle View Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., told the AP (we hope ironically). “Cursive is increasingly becoming obsolete.”
This view is reflected in the new national Common Core curriculum standards, which 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. These standards do not require instruction in cursive, leaving it up to individual states whether to teach it. And with instructional time at a premium with the advent of standardized testing, schools are increasingly opting to erase cursive from classroom blackboards, if in fact they still use them.
Granted, written communication has shifted dramatically from the pen to the keyboard in its various forms, never to return. Schools seeking to prepare students for the future certainly need to make sure they are computer literate and have typing skills.
But there also are strong arguments for continuing to teach handwriting. One is educational. Sandy Schefkind, a pediatric occupational therapist in Bethesda, Md., told The New York Times in 2011 that learning cursive helps students develop their fine motor skills. Proponents of cursive also contend that it is a valuable way to establish connections between reading and writing. And it seems quite likely to us that writing by hand also helps to develop fluidity in language use by emphasizing the flow of words in a way that the striking of distinct letters on a keyboard can never replicate.
Beyond the educational benefits, cursive handwriting continues to fill an important practical niche in the digital world, even as online banking seems to be rendering check-writing obsolete. Computers are neither ubiquitous nor wholly reliable. (Yes, we know this will come as a shock to some readers.) So, when the digital device fails, being able to quickly take handwritten notes on an important telephone call is a big plus. Likewise, when the doctor is explaining various courses of possible treatment, being able to jot down the salient points on the back of an envelope might be a life saver, as well as imprinting them on the mind in a way that a computer printout does not.
The inability to write and read cursive script also severs an important link to the past, and not only for professional historians studying the documentary record. Journals and letters kept by ancestors are an important way knowledge of family life is transmitted from generation to generation. For instance, The Times related an anecdote in which a young woman acknowledged that she and a cousin leafed through their grandmother’s journal shortly before she died and could barely decipher the cursive handwriting.
Nor is printing by hand a foolproof substitute. It is generally regarded as slower to get down on paper than cursive and much easier to forge. And one’s cursive signature is an authentic bit of personal identity that ought not to be effaced lightly. (Has anybody thought about what the end of cursive would mean for autographs?)
Finally, there is an aesthetic reason for keeping cursive. Digital communication is far too impersonal to convey our most intimate and heartfelt emotions in the same way that a thoughtful, handwritten note can — maybe partly because we know that our correspondent took the trouble to express herself in this way.
The day may come when it’s truly a dead letter, but until then, cursive handwriting is like hope — we need to keep it alive.