28 October 2012


Among my many online news resources are the NYTimes and the Washington Post, along with a wide assortment of websites devoted to science, and of course a suite of PBS sites.  One of the Post articles left me in mild shock ~ in it, Gene Weingarten mourns the fate of cursive writing.  " .... during the past 20 years or so, schools have been de-emphasizing the skill.  Many school districts are adopting something called the Common Core Curriculum, which eliminates cursive outright.  The theory is that cursive is obsolete.  Apparently most writing ~ including class notes ~ is being done on laptops.

" .... if we lose the ability to write in cursive, we will soon lose the ability to read in cursive, meaning that, say, the original U.S. Constitution will become indecipherable as a palimpsest, understandable only by experts in ancient runes who will be free to put all sorts of unintended 'spin' on it.  (The Second Amendment protects calligraphers?  Well, if you say so.)

"But the strongest argument is the obvious one ~ speed.  Sure, with skilled typists, laptops are fast, but we're not all skilled typists, and there will inevitably be circumstances where we must rely on pen and paper.  Why relinquish speed?"

I'm torn in several directions.  First, and in my mind most compelling, is that as we learn more skills, we increase the number of neural connections, enhancing not only our knowledge but also our ability to learn.  It is a fact that our lives (especially the lives of younger people) center more on computer keyboards than on pieces of paper.  All the more reason to retain and reinforce handwriting skills.  We need mental diversity.

I learned to type in high school, and then honed my skills by several orders of magnitude as a radioteletype operator in the Army.  My fastest recorded typing speed with no errors was 85 words per minute.  Throughout my life I've relied on typing, both at home and at work, so that even today, with age-stiffened fingers, I can manage 60 words per minute, error-free.  Typing has served me well, and continues to do so at this very instant, as I compose these words.

Coincidentally, in a sense I also learned to write in high school.  Like others of my generation, I'd learned both to print and to write in cursive since earliest grade school.  But in high school my cursive writing really took off, by virtue of a 500-mile post office romance with a girl I'd met at summer music camp.  For two years we exchanged long (10-20 pages), fervent, and frequent letters.  Our romance only lasted about two weeks after our arrival at the same university, but by then I was in the habit of writing in torrents.  My parents to this day are grateful for the long, newsy letters I wrote to them at regular intervals.

As I've grown older, my cursive style has become more of a scrawl, and out of pity for the reader I often revert to printing.  But I cannot imagine never having learned cursive at all.

There's also this to consider ~ handwriting analysis may reveal certain elemental traits in our personalities.  That claim is not without controversy, but to some degree I believe it.  This should not be confused with an indicator of intelligence.  One can barely read the chicken scratch of some of the most brilliant people I know (medical doctors are notorious), and some of the dullest people write with a beautiful hand.  Then there's the entertainment value in parsing out the sheer variety of cursive styles.  The pinnacle, the gold standard, the sine qua non of writing, whether printed or in cursive, rests with those who are skilled at calligraphy.  My most recent relationship was with a woman who had created her own calligraphic font, and it was the finest of fine art.

So the world is changing, and for the most part, we change with it.  No more buggy whips, military cavalry, and very few vinyl LP records.  We no longer speak in Chaucerian Middle English, thank the gods. I nevertheless feel that we are doing our children a disservice by depriving them of a communication option as simple and useful as cursive writing.  After all, when I'm gone, who will be able to read all those old love letters?

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