Let’s Just Let Cursive Writing Die Already

The latest front in the culture wars? Penmanship.

As if to prove there is nothing in life—nothing—beyond our culture wars, I give you this: We now face a battle over the future of penmanship.

Really. The new national “Common Core” standards for public schools do not require the teaching of cursive writing—squeezing it out to make room for more emphasis and testing math and language skills—so legislators in states like North Carolina, are now passing laws requiring young students to learn to make the letter N look like a curvaceous letter M, the capital letter Q to look like a 2, and the letter Z to look like … something.

“For kids today, having a little discipline, having to know something, and be drilled on something is probably good for them,” Chris Malone, a North Carolina state representative, told New York magazine last week.

Well, I for one am glad to join this battle. Cursive sucks. I’m glad to see it become extinct.

OK. Maybe that’s a little overboard.

Listen: My late mother had beautiful penmanship—her grocery lists belonged in a museum, and she even did calligraphy now and again. And I understand why cursive writing exists: For most of our history as a civilization, most humans didn’t have ready or cheap access to printing machines; being able to write legibly and clearly so that other people could easily read your handwriting was a necessary skill, at for those who could read and write.

No longer.

We have machines to do this stuff for us. Who writes letters anymore? More people are probably communicating via the written word now than at any time in world history—thank you, email, texts, and instant messages—but the computers and phones we do that on channel those communications into standard typefaces, so that even sloppy writers are clearly understood.  (Except for people who use Comic Sans.)

Except for signing my name to checks and legal documents, I’ve barely used cursive in 20 years. In the last five years, I’ve barely even set pen to paper, thanks to a proliferation of technologies—most of them available on my iPhone—that make it easy to record and transcribe interviews. All my writing happens at a keyboard.

This, I think, is progress.

Granted, though, I’m left-handed. For me cursive is painful, involving a non-intuitive twisting of the hand and paper in order to avoid creating a smeary mess on the page and my palm. Even then, I was never much good at avoiding the mess. And for that reason, I spent a couple of my elementary school years frustrating teachers who seemed to think my left-handedness made me a substandard student. (They also never had left-handed scissors in the classroom, meaning my construction paper creations were raggedy affairs.)

Defenders, admittedly, have some not-terrible reasons for wanting to preserve cursive.

“When I get hate mail — hate e-mail — about cursive, it’s mostly from conservatives,” Morgan Polikoff, a USC professor who advocates ditching cursive, told New York. “The argument you get from conservatives is more ‘How are we going to be able to read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence?’”

That’s actually a good question.

But the truth is this: Language evolves. The old forms eventually become the province of specialists. Very few people can read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English anymore, and we’ve mostly survived as a culture. And back in the 1700s, lots of writers used a letter that looked a lot like “f” for “s.” Trying to do that today would be fo, fo very filly, even ftupid, to do if you wanted to be underftood.

“Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country and should continue to be taught; not just for the sake of tradition, but also to preserve the history of our nation,” Jimmy Bryant, an Arkansas archivist, wrote this spring in the New York Times.

Maybe. Or it could be that cursive ends up like algebra—a skill required of most students that they ditch completely, never to use again after they leave school. With so much to teach our students, maybe we should stick to the stuff they’ll actually find useful as workers and as citizens. Cursive isn’t really on that list.

 

  • Susan

    “When I get hate mail — hate e-mail — about cursive, it’s mostly from conservatives,” Morgan Polikoff, a USC professor who advocates ditching cursive, told New York.

    REALLY? What? Do they sign the letter to him ‘Mr. John Doe, Conservative’ ??? How would he know which political affiliation they are. Come on — give me a break!

    • Fred_Evil

      Given the examples, it seems pretty easy to deduce.
      Apology forthcoming, Susan?

  • Morgan Polikoff

    Susan, I know their political affiliation because it’s very clear from even a cursory read. For instance (a quote from one of the emails I’ve received):

    “Take your elitist quantitative methods and shove them up your ***. Everyone is different and common core curriculum is only good for dumbing kids down. Writing in cursive is exactly like learning another language and is good for the mind. Open your f****** eyes and quit thinking the state and university can solve the problems of the world. The only thing government is good at is killing. Yes, you’ve been indoctrinated.”

  • Morgan Polikoff

    Another example (I’ve received about 20 hate emails on this subject – my guess is about 75% are from conservative folks):

    “Following the logic of your comments, we soon can remove reading from the core curriculum. Just give a Kindle to each child and a set of ear buds and the Kindle will read out to them all that they need to know, or , heaven forbid, all that the government wants them to know.”

  • Renegade

    Still looking forward to reading one of these Philly Mag pieces that doesn’t devolve into an attack on conservatives. As a political conservative, I rarely use cursive outside of my signature. My 10-year-old hasn’t learned to write in cursive (not a big deal), but he also has difficulty reading cursive (bigger deal). Cursive still exists in our world. Look around you. Signs for stores. Product logos. Important documents (manuscripts, historical, artistic, etc.).

  • vx Carlo

    And here I am trying to improve my cursive writing. I’m on a 12 year project writing in journals for my little one… who as it turns out is 12 day. For her I write by hand in journals since it seems to me that the next power outage or the next world ending computer virus will trump the expedience and short life span of texts, emails and all things electronic. Sure I could type it all out, print it but then it’s not from my hand to paper, to her hands. Something about the act of taking the time to write this way means more – at least to me. And then it occurs to me – will she be able to read it all!? Farewell cursive. We read you well.

    • Joel Mathis

      It occurs to me the argument about how we should preserve certain non-digital technologies for when the lights go out forever misses a crucial point: When that happens, nobody’s going to be worried about books, journals, or writing. Because most everybody will die. Probably mostly of starvation, but also from the diseases that start spreading because there’s no water treatment anymore. Want to be ready for the apocalypse? Forget cursive: Teach your children to hunt, garden, make their own clothes, and purify their water.

      • vx Carlo

        I was speaking in broader terms, apparently excessively, to make the point. I’m not confusing writing by hand & preserving those thoughts with dressing a fresh kill or the end of the world. I’m reminded of Matt Honan’s (Wired Magazine) loss of data and frankly my own small losses when things like external HD’s failed. I’m thankful to have things written by hand that the very best hacker and worst power outage can’t disrupt. Same goes for that old fashioned business of printing pictures. Force majeure aside, my thoughts are towards preserving something of me for her that’s a bit more personal/substantial than a digital representation. Evolve you say? Are you sure that’s the right word in this context?

  • Michelle Belle Dovidio

    Sadly, knowing how to spell will be obsolete, too.

  • KateGladstone

    Am I the only Republican who’s NOT a fan of cursive? When I note the pep-rally-meets-revival-meeting tone that defenders of cursive handwriting indulge in, I observe: “This is not mere defense of cursive: this is _worship_.”

    The cursive worshipers exalt their favorite handwriting with the fervor of devotees approaching a god. It is as if cursive had become a sacrament.

    Can someone please explain why?

  • KateGladstone

    Am I the only Republican who does not bow down and worship a loopy style of handwriting?

    It’s been found that the fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources on request.)

    Reading cursive matters indeed — but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?

    Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. (The source — a web-site operated by the cursive publisher in question — is again available on request.) When even handwriting teachers shun cursive, why prioritize it?

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

  • Darin Padilla

    I suppose swirly ornamental lettering and words are a bunch of BS, well, unless you are gay..Then they are fabulous!! So who should we take direction from? Joel Mathis or his gay alter ego? What a dilemma? I think I will just teach my daughters cursive so they can write beautiful manuscript and hope that the Obama administration hires them. Saw an article recently that the official cursive writer for the White House makes some serious bank!!

    • http://joelmathis.blogspot.com/ Joel Mathis

      “So who should we take direction from? Joel Mathis or his gay alter ego?”

      There’s a difference?

  • Nan Jay Barchowsky

    You would do away with cursive. I agree that we should do away with the varieties of cursive commonly taught in most schools. But handwriting is a necessary skill that could be taught in a simpler manner.

    Too many educators fail to stop and think about the fact that for about three of the earliest years children learn to form print-like letters, writing them from top-to-bottom. Shapes are implanted in motor memory.

    Later in second or third grade, rework that motor memory for letters that change direction of stroke and shape! It’s tough for lots of children, especially if “cursive” instruction is limited by available classroom time. And it is!

    Why not allow print-script to continue with some modest guidance? Many people modify it to suit their individual hands by adding a few joins, their personal type of cursive. Others wind up with chicken scratch due to the conflicting switch form print-script to “cursive.”

  • LeslieFish

    Heheheh. The real giggle is that the Constitution et al *weren’t written in ‘cursive’*! They were written in an older style (called ‘Copperplate’, I believe, but don’t quote me) that was designed for use with dipped quill pens. Yes, handwriting and penmanship are still important, but they should fit modern handwriting tools; IIRC, the ‘Italic’ style, though invented centuries ago, works smoothly and well (and legibly!) with modern ballpoint, roller-ball and felt-tipped pens. ‘Cursive’ has always tended — much too easily — to collapse into illegibility. Yes, let it be replaced.