The Death of Handwriting

As the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Philadelphia is America's unofficial capital of penmanship. So what happens in an age when cursive gets conquered by the keyboard?

"Forty three seventy-nine,” the checkout clerk says. I have my checkbook and pen at the ready; I write in the date and the amount, then start to sign my name. The beginning is legible, a sloppy approximation of the capital M (for “Mary,” okay? Now you know all my secrets) I learned back in grade school. It slides into the lowercase A, but after that, the signature dissolves into a long, straight tail that stands in for the tedious business of forming all those individual letters. There are five people behind me in line, already cursing beneath their breath because I’m holding them up by writing a check instead of keying in a PIN.

I used to be proud of my signature—used to doodle it in the margins of notebooks, add my nickname to the last name of whatever boy I was in love with and practice writing that over and over again: Sandy Keith. Sandy Rogers. Sandy Sherman. Over the decades, though, my penmanship has devolved with disuse. I even stopped sending Christmas cards a few years back. It took too long to write them out and address them—though I did enjoy looking at a stack of them lined up for mailing, little personalized goodies for family and friends.

The only people who still send Christmas cards are old folks, even in Philadelphia, which should be considered the home of American penmanship. After all, it was here that the Founding Fathers put their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence. The nation’s first Catholic parochial school opened not far from Independence Hall in 1782—and everybody knows how fanatical nuns are about handwriting. Ben Franklin was a pen nut, too; students entering the Academy of Philadelphia that he founded—it would become the University of Pennsylvania—were required to write a “legible hand.”

How antiquated. We barely even teach children to write in this keyboarding age. One year ago this month, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education adopted the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics, becoming one of 41 states to sign on to this national effort at establishing educational benchmarks for kindergarten through 12th grade. Notably lacking from the standards: penmanship. And no wonder—who writes in cursive now? Why should kids spend untold hours, the way Ben Franklin did, looping loops and curling curls and making row after row after row of somewhat shaky T’s?

Because it helps them learn to think, say researchers who study what happens inside kids’ heads when they try to write. Because they need the focus and discipline, say critics—including famed Italian author Umberto Eco—outraged at the notion that penmanship is dropping out of curricula around the world. Because they have to be able to read the Declaration of Independence! cries a bevy of worried U.S. birthers. But how much of our attachment to penmanship is mere nostalgia—“It was good enough for us!”—heightened by generational neophobia, and our sense that buttons and beeps and keypads are taking over the world?

Does writing in cursive really matter anymore?