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?

And even the most connected of us, kitted out with iPhones and iPads and Kindles galore, use pen and paper—okay, Post-its—a dozen times a day, to jot down phone numbers, note the time for a meeting, make a shopping list. But that’s no argument for cursive; you can do all that in plain old kindergarten printing. Plenty of people do; most of us write in a mélange of cursive and print nowadays. Why should schools struggle to keep antsy eight-year-olds at their desks, making loop after loop, when that time could be spent upping test scores in English and math? Jen Strauss, a third-grade teacher at Joseph S. Neidig Elementary School in Quakertown, offers one reason: “It slows them down with their work—the craftsmanship of it. Their lives are all rush, rush, rush.” The 20 minutes spent on cursive, she says, are the quietest part of her day: “The kids are really concentrating.”

Purvis agrees: “Learning to quiet the mind and focus on what you’re doing is hugely important. Handwriting develops the mind.”

But does it really? Or does it just shut kids up for a while, until they get to choose a sticker again?

HANDWRITING ONCE MATTERED a great deal. In the Victorian era, penmanship was a means of mastering the wayward human body. Forming characters formed character; the lengthy learning process instilled self-control. Late in the 19th century, public schools ran penmanship classes like strict military drills, training hodgepodge immigrant populations to be good citizens through correct posture and endless repetition. Men’s penmanship was bold and unornamented, while women’s took new flights of fancy, since nothing they wrote was of much consequence.

Then the century turned, and women poured into offices, replacing male clerks, taking shorthand, becoming bookkeepers and secretaries. The business school, including Austin Palmer’s chain of them, reigned. In 1870, business colleges had some 5,800 students, nearly all of them male; by 1900, there were more than 91,000 enrollees, a third of them women. Drawn off the farms to urban centers of commerce, Americans felt demoralized and disenfranchised by the new, fast pace of life. And even as the Palmer Method drilled penmanship as unconscious habit, with school classes stroking to a teacher’s counted beats, a contrary Romantic spirit rose up to celebrate individuality and freedom from regimentation, with the Arts and Crafts movement reviving elaborate calligraphy. And an entire pseudoscience, graphology, evolved based on handwriting interpretation; popular magazines invited readers to send in writing samples for analysis, experts matched clients in love according to their cursive, and businesses checked penmanship at hiring interviews.

The importance of one’s script held through the next half-century; when my big brother was in elementary school in the 1950s, he spent two hours a week practicing his Palmer cursive. Today, most schools spend 15 minutes three times a week, in the third grade. Strauss wasn’t formally trained in teaching cursive; her students get a notebook put out by the Zaner-Bloser company and start with the easy letters, then move on to the harder ones. They are expected to write their first and last names in cursive on all their work: “We talk about how important your signature is when you’re signing important papers.” After third grade at Neidig, it’s up to the teachers to choose if they want students to write in cursive or print. Decisions are made on an individual basis. “Some kids take forever to write a sentence,” Strauss says ruefully.