Monday, July 27, 2009

Cursive is dead, but I'm not mourning

There's an interesting article in this week's issue of Time about the slow death of cursive:
Cursive started to lose its clout back in the 1920s, when educators theorized that because children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way. By World War II, manuscript, or print writing, was in standard use across the U.S. Today schoolchildren typically learn print in kindergarten, cursive in third grade. But they don't master either one. Over the decades, daily handwriting lessons have decreased from an average of 30 minutes to 15.
While it would be easy to blame the death of handwriting on the increasing prevalence of technology - text messaging and e-mail have allowed us to conduct virtually all our business by keyboard, rather than by pen - that's not the entire story.
Technology is only part of the reason. A study published in the February issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology found that just 9% of American high school students use an in-class computer more than once a week. The cause of the decline in handwriting may lie not so much in computers as in standardized testing. The Federal Government's landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, on the dismal state of public education, ushered in a new era of standardized assessment that has intensified since the passage in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act. "In schools today, they're teaching to the tests," says Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor and the author of a history of American handwriting. "If something isn't on a test, it's viewed as a luxury." [Elementary school teacher Linda] Garcia agrees. "It's getting harder and harder to balance what's on the test with the rest of what children need to know," she says. "Reading is on there, but handwriting isn't, so it's not as important." In other words, schools don't care how a child holds her pencil as long as she can read.
I still have memories of third grade, when our teacher introduced us to cursive and explained to us its supposed advantages over print. She claimed, for example, that it was quicker than writing in print, although that never seemed to be the case for me. She also told us that the connected writing style reduced the amount of pen lifting, thereby reducing the number of potential ink smudges. I'm sure that was a big advantage back in the days of quills and inkwells, but probably wasn't quite as much as an issue with the ball point pens we used.

Problem was, my relationship with cursive was tainted from the get-go by my horrendous penmanship. Bad handwriting runs in the family. My father's handwriting is bad. My grandfather's was poor as well. I personally think there is a genetic component to fine motor coordination skill that simply makes some people, such as myself, predisposed to bad handwriting.

So no matter how much instruction I received ("take it slowly," one teacher would tell me; "don't press your pen to the page so hard," advised another), no matter much I practiced my letters, no matter how often my teachers scolded me for my "atrocious" and "illegible" scrawl, my handwriting never really improved. From third through fifth grade, every report card I received came with that obligatory "D" in handwriting. I hated being graded on something I really couldn't "learn." And I resented those gifted kids in class whose immaculate handwriting set the standard by which scribblers like me were evaluated.

It wasn't long afterward - sometime in middle school, I believe - that I abandoned cursive completely and reverted to writing in print. My penmanship still wasn't particularly good, but at least I was more comfortable with my writing and my work was somewhat easier on my teachers' eyes. Today, I don't think I could write a complete sentence in cursive if I tried. It's a skill that I've simply forgotten.
Is that such a bad thing? Except for physicians — whose illegible handwriting on charts and prescription pads causes thousands of deaths a year — penmanship has almost no bearing on job performance. And aside from the occasional grocery list or Post-it note, most adults write very little by hand. The Emily Post Institute recommends sending a handwritten thank-you but says it doesn't matter whether the note is in cursive or print, as long as it looks tidy. But with the declining emphasis in schools, neatness is becoming a rarity.
There's certainly something to be said for neatness, and to be sure, the article discusses the sorry state of the ability of today's youth to print as well as write. There's also something truly lamentable about the entire "teach to the test" philosophy that permeates today's school system and debases the value of "non-essential" skills such as neat handwriting.

But the fact remains: cursive, although elegant, is an outdated artifact of the days before computers or typewriters when most business and correspondence was conducted by hand, using quill and ink. It's a skill that has increasingly less relevance in today's world. That, along with the fact that it is something I was never any good at, means that I'm not really mourning its demise.

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