Jul 312013

Are you old enough to remember learning to do cursive writing each school day, with a fat pencil on lined, horizontal notebooks? My recent brush with what some consider to be an outdated mode of writing has convinced me that those who want to eliminate cursive handwriting from public schools are in the wrong.

In June, my brother researched our family history at a genealogy center in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Our family hails from Ulster Scots, Protestants who sailed across the Irish Sea to Ireland for a better life.

Our ancestors came to America shortly after the Irish potato blight in  mid-century. My brother sought information about family in Ulster.

An archivist handed him a delicate, handwritten diary from 1840, that belonged to an Elizabeth with the same surname.  What made it so remarkable was that Elizabeth had beautiful, legible cursive handwriting, and there were a few clues about our shared history.  Her handwriting tells us that she was literate; that alone is a significant clue. What a treasure!

But it started me thinking — is cursive writing, like the delicate remembrances of my ancestor Elizabeth, dead? The issue recently came into national focus when George Zimmerman trial witness Rachel Jeantel admitted she couldn’t read cursive writing.  But with schools cutting programs to teach cursive writing skills because of the supposed cost-savings, how could we judge Jeantel?

In many school districts, students are weeks or even days away from a new school year. Today, children don’t receive the penmanship training that some of us, and our parents and grandparents received. The Boston Globe recently weighed in on the disappearing penmanship classes:

“To previous generations, clear and speedy handwriting was essential to everything from public documents to personal letters to generals’ orders in battle. As literacy became more widespread, various handwriting methods arose. There was italic, starting in the 15th century, and then in the 17th century came roundhand – called copperplate in the United States – seen in the Declaration of Independence and the script of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1820s, Platt Rogers Spencer developed the Spencerian script, which became the American standard in schools (it survives in the Coca-Cola logo).”

The premiere method of penmanship – that simple, flared work of art that graced our great-aunt Zoe’s  flowered  notes – is a gift of A.N. Palmer, whose method of writing lacked the ornamentation and serifs of the Spencer method.  Palmer’s approach caught on, and millions of early 20th century Americans  were taught with the Palmer Method.

Some may remember writing each day in the early grades, first with a fat pencil on lined horizontal notebooks.

As Archaic as the Land Line Phone and Manual Typewriters. Morgan Polikoff,  a University of Southern California education professor, set out the case for letting the skill of cursive writing ride off into the sunset.  His thesis is that  today’s common curriculum programs focus on the correct skill sets to move students into an educated adulthood. In May, Polikoff published a brief article in the New York Times, entitled “Let It Die. It’s Already Dying,” and noted:

“The Common Core standards are well constructed and full of the essential skills students need to succeed in reading and writing. The architects of the standards certainly weighed the inclusion of cursive and believed there was no need to include it. Thus, educators and policymakers should resist the urge to add more skills. Doing so would simply result in a crowded, less-focused curriculum, undermining the strength of the standards.”

I understand his point, though I’m a hold-out and still send cards and letters.  As a purist, I also use a fountain pen and fine ink on quality paper.  Many state education departments agree with Polikoff’s stance that cursive writing should be retired, along with the “abacus and slide rule.”  My state of Indiana made penmanship optional in 2011.

One argument the anti-cursive folks throw out is that a signature is no longer needed in many cases.  While I delighted in signing my marriage certificate at the same courthouse where my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents also signed their names, many situations today use “e-signatures.”  PCWorld reports that the electronic signature carries the same weight as the written signature.

On the Other Hand, Why Keep Penmanship? Rep. Linden Bateman, an Idaho state legislature, started a national discussion when he pushed legislation to keep penmanship in the curriculum in Idaho.  He caught the attention of several pro-penmanship organizations, including the National Association of Handwriting Analysis foundation.  Sheila Lowe, the Foundation’s President, is also behind the national “Campaign for Cursive” program.

From the Idaho Reporter article: “[Lowe] says that recent research at the University of Washington reveals that areas of the brain having to do with learning, language and working memory “light up” during cursive writing in ways that they do not with keyboarding or printed writing:

“We do so much with keyboarding these days, but we can’t afford to lose the development that a child sustains with cursive writing,” she said.

While 40 states have eliminated formal penmanship training from their curriculum, some parents are finding ways to get their children up to speed with cursive writing and reading.  Some elementary schools even have penmanship clubs after school.

“Grandma, I found this ancient external drive with your blog on it!” Will our children find USB drives hidden in some far-away museum with our family blogs on them?

While my own child is out of grammar school, I still fall on the side that cursive writing has a place.  I understand that today’s global economy demands a curriculum that is world-class, but ‘ll still dip my Italian crystal quill into a bottle of sepia-toned platinum ink and enjoy the almost sensual pleasure of signing my name on crisp vellum.

Published July 31, 2013 on The Broad Side.  Please comment on that site if you are so inclined.

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