Why teach cursive handwriting? A response

Post ImageBack in April I wondered why we still teach cursive handwriting in elementary school. The post generated lots of discussion at the time, and it definitely gave me much to think about. On Friday, I started thinking about it again after receiving a response via email from a reader known only as "The Bluebell Wood." It’s obvious a lot of thought was put into it, so I asked for permission to publish the response and received it. Here it is:

Being able to write a legible and pleasant longhand is an essential part of rational life. “Word Processing” (an abominable phrase) is no substitute. Marshall McLuhan wrote The Medium is the Message and there is a lot of truth in that. The flow of a pen in the hand over paper while composing sentences is a completely different experience from keyboarding and looking at a screen; physically, and in the tools used, and in the mind as well. There is an effect on the content of what is written; in the same way that seasoned craftsmen in the guilds of Renaissance Italy would say, “It is the trade entering his body” when an apprentice bruised his thumb or some such hurt while learning the use of his tools. Writing with ink on paper is an act by which our peerless English language enters us – through hand, eye, posture, and senses, into our thoughts, affecting the sentence structure and choice of words. Forming well-made letters with the hand while forming thoughts in the mind is not the same as tapping little plastic squares while mechanical fonts appear on a screen and the cursor blinks like a tap that won’t stop dripping.

The practice of handwriting also infuses many desirable character qualities. Regard for the reader in the striving for maximum legibility is foremost; the training and development of the aesthetic sense in the letters, spacing, and overall texture; discrimination in avoiding poor proportions; rectitude in avoiding excessive flourishes; in general the application of what Edward Johnston called “sweet reason” in his classic Writing, Illuminating & Lettering of 1906.

This applies to the slant as well, which ideally is not more than about ten degrees from the vertical.

The clarity and precision needed for good legibility schools us in our thoughts and the sentences which incarnate them.

Why would anyone use cursive handwriting in this digital age? The answers are many: pleasure; rational and aesthetic maturity; participation in a historical stream reaching far, to the very dawn of man; its warmth in personal letters; to improve our thinking; and, as one of your own respondents has commented, “Just because everything can be done by computer doesn’t mean that it should be.” (shermie, May 2/07) (Emphasis added). It is premature to call this a digital “age”; it is barely three decades old, and the common use of fonts and p.c.s has been with us for less than one on hundredths of the ages in which cursive writing has been used, in various alphabets and languages.

The very typeset from which the font in which the question was posed is founded on the Humanist Bookhand and its Italic derivatives, which has been in continuous use for six hundred years, and is still vigorous. It is not possible to participate in the “Great Conversation” without learning cursive handwriting and using it well. In postulating that it no longer be taught, one finds oneself in the position of the man sawing off the limb of the great oak on which he himself resides. It is of the utmost importance to retain this skill. We owe it to children and youth to pass on this priceless heritage.

IT IS NOT OURS TO WITHOLD.

A cursive script was used 3,500 years ago in Egypt, where the priests had a hieratic script with the same relationship to hieroglyphics as our longhand has to printing. Cursive Hebrew dates back to Moses (c. 1400 B.C.) and there are also examples from the times of Jeremiah and Jeroboam II (c. 760 – 570 B.C.).

The pleasure of handwriting has always been with us and it is not going to go away. It represents the distillation of human effort to record images of the mind and heart.

It’s a very good response, I think. The font-face I use on this blog is Lucida Sans Unicode, in case anyone was wondering.

Why do we still teach cursive handwriting?

Post ImageI’m generally pretty happy whenever I get the opportunity to show off my Tablet PC, especially when my audience has never seen one before. It happened again Friday afternoon, and the expected “oohs” and “ahhs” filled the room. Usually I fold up my tablet so that the keyboard is hidden, and then I encourage onlookers to try writing in OneNote. Most people very quickly write “hello” or their name in block letters. On Friday however, someone wrote a sentence in cursive handwriting. I remarked that I simply can’t do cursive handwriting anymore, which led to a pretty interesting discussion.

Essentially we wondered aloud why cursive handwriting is still taught in elementary school. I remember learning it in grade three or so, but I simply can’t do it now. If I try, I really have to concentrate, and I just don’t remember what some of the letters are supposed to look like. The only thing I write in cursive these days is my name. The rest of the time I am either on the computer, or scribbling in my messy “print-writing” (where it’s mostly printing with a few letters connected). Why would anyone use cursive handwriting in this digital age? And if the answer to that is “pretty much no one,” then why do we still teach it?

The entry on Wikipedia provides just two reasons:

  • Cursive is easier and faster once mastered. There is no need to constantly pick up the pencil point and put it down again.
  • Cursive may be especially useful for certain students with learning disabilities such as dysgraphia because it has fewer letters that are mirror images of one another, such as the printed b and d, and so may be easier for students who are prone to mixing them up. In some schools, students with such learning challenges are taught cursive before print.

I think the first point is pretty much negated by typing, and the second point is only relevant for a relatively small number of individuals. I suppose another reason not mentioned on Wikipedia would be that cursive handwriting looks nice. My Mom’s handwriting, for example, is quite simply beautiful.

When you think about it, teaching cursive handwriting is really stupid. You generally can’t submit any assignments in junior high, high school, or post-secondary unless they are typed on a computer. What’s the point of learning it then?

Furthermore, I seem to recall that handwriting lessons took quite a bit of class time. Isn’t there something more useful we could be teaching children in place of handwriting?