In Defense of Cursive. Or Not.


When it comes to change, I like to think I’m a centrist.  Some things, like making single-malt scotch or a finely bound book, are best achieved using the old ways.  Other things, like dentistry with benefit of painkillers or communicating via electronic devices, have been life changing.  So I am having difficulty nailing down my reaction to the fact that schools are no longer teaching children how to write using cursive.

When I first heard about it, I was appalled.  Part of that had to do with the hours spent perfecting my handwriting so that I would not be the last kid in the class allowed to use a pen.  In my school you had to earn that privilege.  But part of it went deeper than that.  Then this week, I gave an addressed envelope to the young man at the UPS store and asked him to send it with a tracking number.  He could not read the address.  He couldn’t even get close, thinking “Stephanie” was “Daniel,” and “East” was “Oak.”

There I had it!  A tangible objection that went beyond the increasingly arcane Emily Post reasons of wedding invitations and handwritten thank-you notes.  If you can’t write in cursive you most likely can’t read it either.  This is will become less of a problem in the next thirty to fifty years as the cursive generations shuffle off, yet the notion still nags.  What are the implications for the use of archives and archival research?  Or the impact on the humanities in general?  Genealogical hobbyists need knowledge of cursive to read family documents, and cook’s too or else grandma’s recipe for snickerdoodles will be lost forever.  Graduate schools offer courses in Medieval paleography; will mid-twentieth century paleography represent the coming trend?

Further, is the abandonment of handwriting one that other first-world nations are following?  Or like never learning second and third languages, is it another symptom of being American?  Will the Axis powers of the future be able to thwart us, not with the use of microdots and Enigma machines, but with Spencerian penmanship?  OK, that’s a silly example, but the knowledge gap between the United States and other countries remains real.

Finally, there is the notion that brains process information differently using different techniques.  Cursive is said to work better for people with dyslexia.  Taking class notes in long-hand has been shown, in some studies, to improve retention.  Realistically, however, this may be clutching at straws, and probably only experts can give us an answer.  So I continue to straddle the fence in an uncomfortable position that is hard to maintain over the long term.  Please help me.  What do you think about it?  If you think about it at all?

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