In Defense of Cursive

Handwriting is as much a handicraft as joinery or carving–and perhaps more so–as it requires careful use of hand tools to make something significant.  Writing efficiently by hand–writing both quickly and legibly–is something between a skill and a high art, mastered only through discipline and practice.

Now, in America, the end of cursive handwriting is in sight. Elementary schools are dropping cursive from curricula, and few high schools require students to write anything in cursive. The usual defenses of cursive–that it is quicker than printing, that it is easier for dyslexic children to master, and that it is a good discipline for its own sake–are no doubt true, but they don’t go to the heart of the matter.  When we forget how to write in cursive, we will also forget how to read cursive, and we will irrevocably cut ourselves off from our own history.

Like most people my age, I learned to write cursive in elementary school. Soon I realized that when I wrote in cursive, my younger brothers could not (yet) read my handwriting. Cursive became to me a kind of secret code, and I relished it. Little did I imagine that twenty-five years later, my handwriting would again look like a secret code to school-aged children.

Since my wife and I are now homeschooling our own children, we will be teaching them cursive. We will teach them to write cursive for one simple reason: we want them to be able to read their ancestors’ handwriting.

Can you read this?

Can you read this?  My grandchildren may not be able to.

As I grew up, my parents kept a shared diary about me, detailing funny things I said and did, as well as serious life events. Now my wife and I are keeping similar diaries for each of our children. They are all written in cursive, and we want our children to be able to read them.

I have a few photos from my grandparents, and the captions on the back–names, places, and dates–are written in cursive. I want my children to be able to read those, too.

The diplomas hanging on my office wall are written in cursive, and I want my children to be able to read them. I fear the day when an earnest student sitting in my office suddenly looks up at my doctoral diploma and asks me what it says.

Can you read this?

Can you read this? Long before I retire, my students won’t be able to.

When my wife and I were engaged, we wrote long letters to each other, detailing the daily events of our lives, discussing important ideas, and expressing our hopes for the future. We want our children to be able to read those letters, too.

I remember my 95-year-old great-grandmother once giving me birthday money in the form of a check. I don’t remember the amount, but I remember the handwriting. It was shaky but still elegant and graceful, clearly the result of long discipline that began with quill pens and ink wells. I admired the handwriting for a moment, and then happily cashed the check. To this day, I wish I would have saved the check instead. That handwriting was a rich connection to my past worth far more than the document’s monetary value.

When we insist on having only what appears to have immediate, pragmatic value, we will find ourselves not richer but very much poorer.

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6 Responses to In Defense of Cursive

  1. Steve,

    Do you think that signatures will evolve as well?

    Chris

  2. blowery says:

    I think you’re vastly overestimating how difficult it is to read cursive. The letterforms are not that much different from print. There’s only 52 forms and they’re fairly easy to figure out if you have the print version in your head and a working knowledge of English.

    That said, I do like cursive and there’s some evidence that shows it may help make connections in your brain. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/what-learning-cursive-does-your-brain

    Like manual training, the point isn’t always the actual output, but the training it brings.

  3. Rita says:

    Great point! My grandparents all grew up in the Netherlands, where the cursive was a bit different than what I learned in Canada 20 years ago. I often had difficulty reading their simple writing, even if it was in English. I often got stuck on the simple word “the.”

    • Indeed. I understand that, some time ago, Germany went through a major change in handwriting, and now only experts can read old handwritten documents in German. I don’t know how many other European languages have abandoned handwriting styles that are now largely illegible to major speakers.

  4. Dave says:

    Children can not read an analog clock now. Where are we headed?
    Calculators are replacing long division.
    It is a sad time.

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