Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Curse of Cursive

Well, I liked the penultimate sentence.

Penmanship, like hieroglyphics and the IBM Selectric, has lost its purpose. Let's erase it for good.

Jessica Bennett
From the magazine issue dated Feb 23, 2009

In all my years of school, there was only one time I cried in class. It was the first week of first grade—Mrs. Scougie's room—and we were learning cursive. Q. I hated the letter. But it wasn't that I couldn't get the strokes right. It was the way I held my pencil: with four fingers around the base, not three—an apparent crime against writing protocol. And though I still write that way, thank you very much, I haven't used script since elementary school. I type, I Twitter, I Facebook and IM. I e-mail co-workers who sit feet from my desk, and text rather than call. The only time I pen a handwritten letter is when I write to my grandmother. So when I hear people say that penmanship is dead, my response: it's about time.

It's precisely people like me who prompted Kitty Burns Florey, a longtime copy editor, to write "Script and Scribble," in which she argues that there's simply too much to be lost by allowing the written word to fade into irrelevance. Penmanship, Florey believes, is about more than pretty loops and strokes. It's a way to understand our past, reflect ourselves in the present and maybe even improve our cognition in the future. "I know that in the digital age, forming perfectly sculpted letters on paper can seem pointless," says Florey, 65. "But I think there are a lot of people who just can't stand to see handwriting die. And it's not just old people!"

No, but they may be out-of-touch people. The folks who want to make us script conscripts have formulated all sorts of rationalizations. Chief among them: education. Some studies have shown a link between good handwriting and improved academic performance. A recent one found that the majority of primary-school teachers believe that students with fluent handwriting produce better work, though it seems just as likely that the teachers might "believe" that because legible handwriting makes their jobs easier. And you could just as easily argue that cursive can be a disincentive to learning for Q-phobic kids like me (though even I believe kids should still learn block lettering). That was the case for Anne Trubek's 9-year-old son, who struggled so much with penmanship that he now hates writing altogether. "His school's policy is that you must learn cursive because you need to learn how to write and read it," says Trubek, who is a professor of English at Oberlin College. "I understand that you need to know how to write, but I think cursive could really just go." Teachers seem to think so, too. Penmanship was once taught for close to an hour each day; it now warrants less than 15 minutes, according to a 2007 study. Keyboarding has replaced cursive as the priority in most schools, and most kids don't use it when they have the chance: in 2006, just 15 percent of SAT takers used cursive on the written test.

Then there's the history argument: if we can't read script, we'll lose a link to our past. How will we study the Declaration of Independence, or make sense of letters from the Civil War? Will we no longer be able to translate the diaries of our ancestors? They're valid concerns, except that no ordinary person is hitting up the original text of the Declaration anyway. And if reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" in translation is good enough for most every student in America, what's so wrong with a pocket-size transcription of the Founding Fathers' words? Sure, handwriting can be a form of individual expression; if there were no cursive, John Hancock would be just another name on a legal document. Yet if Princess Diana—who was accepted into secondary school on the strength of her penmanship—were alive today, she'd probably be typing in a lovely custom font.

If you think about it, penmanship has been edging toward oblivion for years. Between the printing press, the typewriter and now, of course, the computer, it's a "historical blip," as Trubek puts it, among writing technologies. By the 1890s, even Henry James was dictating his novels to a secretary. The fact is, the push to save cursive isn't so much historical or educational as it is emotional. Which means there's a reason people such as Florey are worrying about handwriting's disappearance right now. As historian Tamara Plakins Thornton, the author of "Handwriting in America," explains it, penmanship represents a simpler, prettier way of life—slower and more personal, much like the handwritten note. In times of particular anxiety—war, recession, change—we tend to cling to these simplicities of the past as a way to maintain order over the present. So if loops and swirls make you feel better, be my guest. In fact, go buy a fountain pen. The economy needs all the help it can get.


  1. At first, I thought this author was joking. As it became clear that the intent was serious, I felt a strange emotional transformation: an initial surge of pity rapidly turning into anger.

    This is populism of the really, really bad kind. I have three computers and have used computers daily both at work and at home (where I'm now retired) since 1989. But I also have something like thirty fountain pens; and even if I had none, I would feel lost without at least a pencil.

    If I had to choose between computers and handwriting instruments for all my writing, I would choose the latter.

    For one thing, they require no electricity. And they seldom crash. When they do, they're usually pretty easy to fix.

    Pens and pencils don't mistakenly erase everything you've been writing for the past two hours (this has happened to me with computers). A handwritten journal is as vulnerable to fire, earthquake, flood, and other natural forces as a computer, but remains readable centuries later, with luck. No computer-only documents are likely to be able to make that claim.

    The implication that if you're not totally electron-icized, you're out of touch with civilization, is ludicrous and reflects poorly on the writer's sense of reality. The piece is subtly insulting to intellectuals, scholars, people with meditative personalities, and, ultimately, anybody who sees no point in being "with it" when "it" is a tawdry, over-commercialized, dog-eat-dog world.

    I seldom come across a writer I would not care to meet in person. This time, I have.

  2. WaterNai8:31 PM

    For times when an electronic device isn't available, people need to be able to write legibly, neatly, and with ease. There are still times when one needs to jot something down and possibly give it to others that have nothing to do with the formality of wedding thank-you notes. Good penmanship is a skill that needs to be learned, just as those who do not spend their lives at a computer still need to know how to type competently.

    The author of this article also conflated some facts about cursive handwriting. Yes, some loops, etc. of later cursive writing were for aesthetic purposes. But do not confuse the presentational aspects and ideals of another century with the purpose of cursive writing itself. Cursive writing originally came about because joining letters together is easier and faster than the many short strokes and pen lifts of what we call printing.

    I would suggest that the author look at some of the proponents of clean, modern hands. They suggest writing styles that give the speed and fluidity that cursive was designed for without the decorative aspects of any Copperplate-inspired loops. Though I wonder if the author's house is as austere and undecorated as she would like everyone's handwriting to be. I also wonder if she ever chooses a beautiful or interesting font on her computer, or is she uses Arial at all times. Perhaps she occasionally splashes out and picks Courier because it's got a serif.