Dump cursive, if you must. But learn to read script!

scriptFor five centuries, school students have learned to write in longhand about two years after they learn the alphabet. Prior to the introduction of the ballpoint pen in 1945, as World War II was ending, they also endured endless drills to refine the polish and pizzazz of their script. Learning cursive was taken for granted and good penmanship followed closely behind.

Penmanship doesn’t just make handwriting legible. It elevates it to an expressive art. If you have ever held an old letter or a high school yearbook, then you are nodding in agreement. There are no scribbles. Every thought is written with style and class.

Penmanship like this requires more than skill. it requires a quill or a fountain pen.

But after the war, schools largely abandoned the effort to write legibly. After 1950, well formed script was something that circled the classroom ceiling. (For some reason, every teacher staples it up there). The banners of our childhood gave a focal point to many childhood daydreams. We glanced upward and learned that there are two ways to draw a lower case ‘r’ and an upper case “Q”. Of course, no one that we knew had ever written a “Q” like the number 2. But there it was for all to see.

Kids today are no longer expected to write beautifully nor even legibly. With the emergence of keyboards, we are in the habit of mixing printed characters with an occasional scribble. The handwriting of doctors has long been the butt of jokes. In the end, we hope that our teachers, employers or patients grade us on content and not on handwriting.

A few years ago, journalists lamented the death of penmanship. But those news stories were just fillers. After all, in this century, few people write with the style and panache of John Hancock. Our new Treasury secretary can’t even sign his name. He draws a series of four circular loops.

penmanship-01It wasn’t always like this, of course. Look at the inscription in an old book or at the notes written into a yearbook. You will find that little Mary had more style and class than a modern day calligrapher. Based on the letters and old books that I come across, it appears that the general population lost this ability sometime between the World Wars.

It’s a good bet that the loss of well-formed handwriting has something to do with the ballpoint pen. A great deal of the style and flair in John Hancock’s signature requires a quill pen or at least a fountain pen with a nib that can be drawn across the page at an angle and broadened as the user applies pressure. The flow of ink is also controlled by pressure and speed.

Penmanship vs. Cursive

Whatever the reason, the demise of penmanship doesn’t seem like a big deal, because it predates most of us. But now, we are faced with the demise of cursive altogether. Is that a problem?

Perhaps learning to write in cursive is no more necessary than learning to calculate with a slide rule—just another anachronism of concern to only historians and nostalgia buffs. I stopped using a slide rule when the Bomar calculator dropped below $100. That was 1974. By the mid 1980s, my high school physics teacher, Mr. Overboe, abandoned his slide rule, even though he still sported a bow-tie and horned-rim spectacles.

Jacob Lew-01

What does that squiggle say? Treasury
Secretary, Jacob Lew, is no John Hancock!

Throughout America and in any region using a Roman alphabet, school boards and state curriculum committees are tossing cursive to the wind. Time that was spent learning how to write is now spent learning keyboard skills.

So far, this seems fair. I will not give up handwriting, but I accept that children a bit younger than my 6th grade daughter may never master that skill. After all, the purpose of writing without lifting pen is to speed the communication process. And since we eventually need to get our thoughts into a computer or a smart phone, it is no longer useful. Right? But wait! When you change a tradition, there is a little problem that tends to bite us in the a*s. I call it Ellery’s law of unintended consequences

This weekend, I went to Aunt Suzi’s house for Mother’s Day brunch and I learned something that shocked me. It even shocked my 12 year old daughter who agrees that handwriting is not a critical skill. Suzi’s nephew, Timothy is fifteen—3 years older than my daughter. Timothy is very bright and attends a good school. Apparently, in his district, cursive was abandoned years ago. No problem so far…But during a discussion about the merits of keyboard vs. handwriting, Timothy informed us that he not only lacks the skill to write longhand, he can’t read it either!

Come again? Whaahzat?! Timothy can’t read handwriting?!!

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fountain_penI dismissed the need for good penmanship long ago. After college, I lost the ability to write with beauty or flair. Eventually, I lost the ability to write in cursive. My right hand can not guide a pen any better than the left. (Caveat: I can still write my signature!). The news that schools across the land are are dropping cursive barely registered. It was a dinner table discussion for just one meal.

Personally, I’m glad that I once knew how to write longhand, but perhaps the fun and pride that I feel is based on nostalgia and a resistance to change. This is the Internet Age. It’s time to make way for the keyboard, gestures and voice input. I can certainly live with that.

Or so I thought. But wait! What about reading someone else’s writing?…

When people talk about cutting the unit where children learn to read history from the pen of Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare, I am really beginning to fear for our future. I didn’t stop to think that this new world order means that kids turn into adults without even figuring out how to read cursive. That’s ludicrous!

We’re not talking about ancient Sanskrit. We’re talking about The Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s Diary, and Grandma’s next birthday card. Who the heck decided that our children only need to read a text message or an email? (They certainly don’t read newspapers).

I cannot accept this. Imagine leaving a note for your executive assistant, “Tell the customer that I will call in an hour”, only to learn that it is as cryptic as if it were in a foreign language or a secret code. If that same assistant tells me that I should have texted him or left a voice message, he will be looking for new job. Are we prepared to lose written language in a single generation? Really prepared?!! What about you? Do you care?

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Colossal PR Failure: Taliban effort to silence Malala

If you have picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV news in the past 11 months, then you probably know of Malala Yousafzai, a courageous Pakistani girl who stared down the Taliban and took 2 bullets to the head. Today, as Malala’s influence spreads across the Muslim world, the Taliban is realizing that attacking a 14 year old girl was a terrible move. Even among religious zealots, their cause was dealt a blow.

Malala was targeted by Taliban militants who sought to suppress her appeal for an education. They stormed her minivan school bus and shot her twice in the face. But she survived. After surgery to replace parts of her cranium, implant a cochlea into her inner ear and reattach nerves to facial muscles, she is making an astounding recovery thanks to triage surgeons in Pakistan and a team of specialists at Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham England.

Mala didn’t want a free education, or one that was mandatory for girls who accept the radical Islam enforced by Taliban militants. She simply advocated for halting their intimidating ban on the education of all girls, including the destruction of 250 schools, and the murder of families who object to their twisted religious doctrine.

But many Wild Ducks have yet to learn of Malala’s back story. For many in the West, it began when the New York Times created a 32 minute video about the life and efforts of Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. In the picturesque Swat Valley, just north of the Islamabad, he operated a private high school and college for girls. Ziauddin recruited and paid a professional staff and maintained surprisingly high academic standards.


The New York Times profiled Malala’s life 2 years before she was shot

Although the Times video ends with Malala meeting President Obama’s attaché, she was not yet the object of international attention. Filmed just before and after her twelfth birthday, it captures the profound regional change. It begins with interior scenes of Malala’s home and her father’s school. The family lives with unbearable stress, because of a Taliban decree that schools admitting girls must close within the week. Their radio broadcasts warn that school staffs and parents will be held accountable for any girl who receives an education. The meaning of ‘accountable’ isn’t lost on parents or schools. Gunman shoot, burn, amputate or bomb anyone violating the Fatwa. Half of the pupils stop coming (and stop paying tuition). Across the region, the few schools that weren’t already destroyed are shut off to girls.

Ziauddin Yousafzai

Ziauddin Yousafzai

Then, The New York Times video covers siege and exile. It follows the father’s flight from Swat, including his 4 month separation from family. Eventually, he returns to a home and school that was occupied by the local army in an apparently successful effort to expel the Taliban. But the narrator explains that Taliban militants are hiding among the refugees, taking food from western charities and slipping back into the region along with returning citizens.

But what about Malala? In addition to exhibiting extreme chutzpah, she is a living testament to her father’s educational methods. Even at 11, she is poised, articulate, multilingual and startlingly proficient in math and science.


Malala talks about her remarkable recovery after being shot in the face by Taliban militants

What does AWildDuck think about Malala and the events that forged courage amongst depravity? There is an astounding array of ignorance, hate and extremism in this world. Extremism inevitably leads to trauma, like that which this girl has endured. Yet, here, we are witness to the emergence of an intelligent and astonishing young adult! Her strength has risen with each ignorant and evil act of tormentors. In short order, she has become a beacon of truth and human dignity. What an amazing triumph of compassion, medical skill and sheer will power over the forces of intolerance.

Malala Yousafzai will go on to do great things. She has demonstrated that she cannot be silenced—certainly not by a bullet. She is an incredible force for good and an inspiration for us all.

Merriam-Webster dictionary banned in California

I was about to begin this post with the words “Every once in a while, politicians and school boards come up with some truly bizarre edicts.” Then, I would have gone on to report one really whacked out policy…

But in truth, it’s not just ‘once in a while’. In this age of space exploration, cultural pluralism and enlightenment, common sense and fair play have gone out the window like a bat out of — well, you get the idea!

Dispensing with the usual introduction, gaze at an incredulous article:

Dictionaries Banned From Schools – “Not Age Appropriate”

The original story is shorter than this Wild Duck retort. But in case the link no longer works, here’s a thumbnail edition: Based of the complaint of one parent, a Southern California school board pulled Merriam-Webster’s 10th Edition from fourth and fifth grade classrooms because “it is not age appropriate”. The parent was upset that the dictionary did not censor itself. It defined a sexual term.

Oh my gawd! An uncensored dictionary!

Note to whacked out parent: It’s a dictionary, not a Bible! (speaking of Bibles, a dictionary is certainly less obsessed with sex.)

It is a religious zealot or a narrow-minded fanatic who values ignorance and “innocence” over a comprehensive scholastic dictionary. Dictionaries are a repository of language and culture. Not just your language, but the words and phrases that are a product of the world around you. Dictionaries obviously define terms for many activities and things that you might not wish to visit upon your children. Good Gawd, lady! That’s no excuse to keep them under a rock.

Why not ban the definition of “murder”, “diarrhea” and “warts”. We certainly don’t want our kids to be visited by these plagues. Yet, few parents would attempt to shelter them from these definitions.

Don’t want your child to experience this? Simply ban it from the dictionary!

Who taught you that information is poisonous? For how long do you want your 5th grader to be ignorant of sex or even its basic terminology? From whom should he or she learn – If not from a dictionary, a school and from family?

Actually, I am more concerned with the response of the school board than with one ignorant parent. To be fair, the board is complaining, but not about the parent! Believe it or not, they are upset at the difficult task ahead. They plan to read the entire dictionary to see if other terms might offend another whacked out parent! Quoting the immortal Homer Simpson, “D’OH!”

Some people fear learning. They believe in the ostrich axiom “ignorance is bliss”. But school boards stand for education – that is, if brains aren’t checked at the door. Why would a school board kowtow to ignorance or fanaticism? Perhaps, the fanatic has a louder voice than the silent majority. Hopefully, parents who want educated offspring are still in the majority.