• Otter Views: Should we continue to teach cursive handwriting?

    by Tom Stevens

    A 2014 deadline for standardizing the nation’s public school curricula has stakeholders revisiting an old dilemma. Should “cursive” handwriting be taught in schools, or not? The Monterey Herald ran a recent Associated Press story weighing the question, and now I’m puzzling over it, too.

    Most states reportedly want to hand the handwriting decision to their various school districts, which seems a prudent course, if not a standardized one. A few states – California, Georgia and Massachusetts among them – want cursive to be part of a national language arts standard. Others view it as a waste of instructional time.

    There are arguments to be made on both sides. The pro-cursive camp maintains that mastering those loops and swoops helps primary school kids hone fine motor skills, read original sources, develop their own written identities and relate to cursive-writing forbearers.

    Secondary school brings timed essay tests that require handwritten responses to discourage cybernetic cribbing. Some teachers insist students can write the essays more swiftly and lucidly in cursive than in block print. A few, like San Luis Obispo High teacher Eldra Avery, reportedly re-teach “longhand” for that sole purpose.

    “They have to write three essays in two hours,” Avery said of her 11th grade students. “They need that speed. Most of them learned cursive in second grade and forgot about it. Their penmanship is deplorable.”

    Those opposed to teaching cursive suggest that modern technology has made “penmanship” as quaintly archaic as its name. They point out that 21st century written communication is keypad-based, so typing instruction makes more sense than teaching handwriting. If handwriting is taught at all, they say, it should be block printing, the format closest to digital text.

    One fourth grade teacher suggests a compromise: have kids learn to read cursive (for those original source documents) but hand-write in print. “Students can be just as successful with printing,” Dustin Ellis of Simi Valley told AP. “When a kid can text 60 words a minute, that means we’re heading in a different direction. Cursive is becoming less and less important.”

    As a former English teacher, I can vouch for the generational divide on cursive. Because my post-World War Two generation was schooled intensively in “longhand,” I annotated my students’ journal entries, essays and papers in that antique style. On writing assignments I deemed particularly important, I might scribble as much in the margins as they had written on the page.

    In teaching stints at a half dozen middle and high schools, I annotated blithely away in cursive, never realizing the students couldn’t read it. No wonder my earnest commentaries prompted so little response. It finally struck home that my generation of teachers was about the last to use cursive. To bring that lost art back to the nation’s classrooms, you’d have to teach the teachers as well as their pupils. They’re all printing or texting now.

    And so is everyone else. Font designers and calligraphers aside, it’s hard to name an occupation for which “readable cursive” is a prerequisite. Yes, at one time, collegians, stenographers and journalists had to “take notes” from spoken sources, then read and reformat the information later. But voice recording and transcription systems make note-taking obsolete: speech can rewrite itself. Many college students no longer bother attending lectures – the notes are all posted on-line.

    Technology may have consigned cursive to the dusty school shelving that holds the inkwells, slide rules and “McGuffy’s Readers,” but longhand may yet find adherents. As any teacher will attest, the best way to stimulate youthful interest in something is to banish it.

    Once teachers can no longer write and read cursive, I can imagine it becoming a secret code language for student cognoscenti, as Latin and Greek were in earlier times. Cursive notes will be passed openly. Insults will be written in “pig cursive” on bathroom walls and mirrors. Genius kids will write backward and upside down using mirrors.

    On second thought, probably not. History tends to go forward, not backward. I noticed few shoppers camped outside stationery stores this “Black Thursday,” but they did line up for iPads and smart phones. And when Christmas morning dawns, very few youngsters will shriek with joy as they open Parker pen and pencil sets in matching red.

    But we vanishing cursive writers can still reminisce. How weighty, sleek and balanced those old fountain pens felt in the hand! How tart and dark the fragrance that rose from freshly opened ink bottles! How satisfying the tiny slurp as the pen “nib” drank its fill! And how many happy hours we spent refining our longhand signatures! Should I slant left? Right? Bigger loop? Swoop the T? Bubble the i?

    No, get over that. Next thing you know, we’ll be talking about typewriters and carbon copies. That’s another column.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 30, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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