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.
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.