For 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.
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.
It 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.
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?!!
I 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?
- Help! My 7th grader can’t read script
(Hmm-m, the reply says that you must first learn to write it!)