Archive for March 23, 2020


© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

People my age or older who don’t write are sometimes a trip and a half. One common refrain to raise its ugly head in discourse is the one about handwriting…specifically cursive. Few schools teach it. No one under the age of tadpole seems to know how to read it and I’m not sure I care.

The arguments go like this…

  1. “You lose the ability to read the original citizenship documents and other great works of our past that are handwritten, which means that unscrupulous people can trick you by changing those words in the dead of night.”
  2. “It’s an important discipline to teach the student how to mentally organize their thoughts or…”
  3. “Science shows that teaching cursive is better for a developing mind and…”
  4. “How else will a student learn to create a distinctive signature?”
  5. “It’s a good backup skill for when the power goes out.”

There might be a few more, but I think that covers it for now.

Option 1 also known as The Animal Farm Argument sounds like a reasonable concern. The Pigs did change the Farm’s Constitution in the dead of night to the infamous dicta – “Some animals are more equal than others.”

I might gently ascribe to this thinking when the subject is English instruction as a whole asserting a visit to the Library of Congress as an American civil variation of the Hajj to Mecca. That as long as the original documents exist and we learn English the bad guys can’t change the copy printed in the back of the Eighth Grade Civics textbook, which is the version we actually read…or not.

I’ve already conducted that civil hajj. In the late Seventies, I took the trip to Washington. The Constitution and Declaration were at the time kept in their matching argon-filled bullet-resistant polycarbonate vaults at the Library of Congress. Cool…except for the part about not getting closer than twenty feet.

The logic of the Animal Farm Argument requires a ten-year-old to jump the rope line with textbook in hand to compare texts. I didn’t think of it at the time, in part because we don’t really teach the Original Documents in class until you are in the eighth grade and get issued the aforementioned Eighth Grade Civics textbook. Also, this was long before tablets and Kindles…the textbook in question is a lot to lug in the line for a ten-year-old only about two bad breakfast burritos away from – “Fuck the old parchment! Show me the planes and rockets a couple doors down at the Air and Space Museum!”

Bringing things around to the specific argument for cursive, the above makes even less sense. The documents in question may have been handwritten, but with an eye towards public display. This meant that what is actually protected by the vault is written carefully with a script that isn’t block printing, but isn’t the average handwriting, then or now, either.

When they let people get close enough to take pictures for the Wikipedia article, we see they’re far more decipherable than we sometimes credit as we bemoan the loss of cursive. And let’s face it, no other handwritten document in English matters except to the historians who in the future will take college level classes on reading cursive. The same way that people who want to teach Greco-Roman Classics and other Old And Presumably Important Cultural Documents at the college level take Ancient Greek, Classical Latin, Sanskrit and other such languages…as electives. Who then make decent livings translating for the rest of us.

The people espousing Option 2 scare the shit out of me. I didn’t have any traumas associated with learning cursive the way I might’ve landing in that one high school English class with the hippie-dippy teacher. You know, she never met a Baghwan she didn’t love and went out of her way to kill enjoyment of Hamlet due to an overreliance on symbolism and “what it all means” in her teaching method.

But I do remember a huge amount of tedium tracing the letters, just so, early on. And then you grow up a little and they just tell you to write your five-paragraph essay. I was never dinged nor praised for my handwriting. I turned in some of my papers with printing or a mix of print and cursive. My grade was the same…I either spelled my words correctly and made a logical argument while demonstrating that I’d read the source material or I didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t do the essay…another form of a lack of discipline that cursive practice didn’t solve.

I have friends who teach and may quit as soon as their health benefits and pensions vest. The common refrain for the current spate of not liking the job is that students don’t read, don’t do homework, don’t write and don’t even do the work when time is given in class, because homework is frowned on. So, teaching cursive will magically solve this?

Seems to me that the people who lead with Option 2 are like the old-timey doctors that resisted the move in medical school for shorter less crushing intern shifts in the teaching hospital – “I survived it, so you have to do it too.” Almost like abusers passing their curse down through the generations.

Despite the fact that while we haven’t completely eliminated paper, we’ve come close. We send documents back and forth using PDF files that you either print out, sign and rescan or there are apps that create a digital signature with the same legal effect. We send emails, texts and social media links.

As a GenX in-betweener, I can talk about feeling a strange joy getting a card recently from my biological mother who still trusts pen and paper. Yes, I can read her words. On one hand, I speak piously about just doing my first draft at the keyboard, or on the converse that I fill up notebooks either paper or digital by the score because moving the stick we call Pen or Stylus helps me work out my more stupid ideas.

However, none of that handwriting is in cursive and hasn’t been for a long time. You’d think the idea of working out certain ideas on paper or the notetaking app in need of an Apple Pen would mean I would be in the cursive camp. Not when I have printing for that.

All through my school years, I might start an essay question in cursive and finish in printing. Never really figured out the why. They tell us that cursive which keeps the pen nib on the paper saves time. I personally never noticed it, especially since my hands, wrist and elbow still ache and the same general amount of time elapses between Blank Page and Done. And I nearly always ended the essay or blue book test in printing.

Writers accumulate the wreckage of our collective writing pasts. Boxes of notebooks. Copies of this or that, some with markups. So, if I do become important enough for people do some literary archeology on my box (slowly migrating to Dropbox) and I end up printing anyway without noticing any lost time or quality, it makes sense to just print to make my detritus more readable from jump. You know, indulge a bit of ego to make it easy for scholars to understand me in the future. It’s an ego driven avocation to think I have a story to tell that you want to hear.

The science argument. This disposes easily – “cite your sources.” I haven’t seen any citations. Maybe cursive helps young minds develop. And maybe the content on that piece of paper does the same thing. The teachers that wanted me to write whatever I liked as extra credit are the teachers I remember as being my personal Mr. Holland (just without the music). The draft of my magnum opus about Jesus rolling up to Mount Olympus to demand the keys was delivered mostly in printing and then typed and saved my grade for the semester. Which has more impact?

Moving on to the signature argument. Makes sense, I suppose. Mine is derived from my leftover cursive when I intentionally just took my signature from how I would just write my name. But then I’ll put my dad’s signature in juxtaposition, a squiggle that barely has a R, a J and an S in it that has no other relationship to cursive. Why? He believed forgers would freak out getting his right trying to steal checks. Seems to me that we can put any old thing down on the credit/debit slip as long as we do the same thing every time.

As for the power going out. I print. Got it covered. There you have it. I don’t like cursive, not then and less now when it really doesn’t matter to society. Thus endeth the opinion.