02 July 2013

Spock vs. John Muir: The Case of the Cursive Letter

The creative person wants to be a know-it-all.
He wants to know about all kinds of things-ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, hog futures.
Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea.
It may happen six minutes later, or six months, or six years.
But he has faith that it will happen.
~ Carl Ally

The following is the third post in a series exploring the current debate over technology and its effects, if any, on social behavior. ~ MD

ost younger Americans apparently cannot.

Who knew cursive writing would become such a tempest in an inkwell?  The first I heard of it was Vignesh Ramachandran’s article on Mashable: “Has Technology Killed Cursive Handwriting?  The article asks whether cursive writing is necessary in a world where everyone tweets, texts, and emails with Qwerty keyboards and touch screens.

Latin is a Dead Language. . .
On the anti-cursive side of the desk, we have Morgan Polikoff, who scoffs at cursive, and Kate Gladstone, who believes that handwriting is important, but not necessarily cursive handwriting. 

The first thing I noticed about both their articles in favor of killing cursive is the lack of scientific or professional tone.   Of course, they are opinion articles, so that may account for it.  But for instance, Kate Gladstone says
Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.
Polikoff was equally vague:
there is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching.  
Neither cited or linked to the supposed study that was allegedly being misquoted or that not “compelling,” although to be fair, the other side didn’t either.  I can only assume all parties are referring to the College Board study from 2008 – Writing, Technology and Teens.         

While it’s true that this study doesn’t specifically talk about cursive handwriting, it does seem to draw a correlation between the use of technology and the effect it has on creative writing.  But since we are talking especially about cursive handwriting versus typing on a keyboard, we’ll leave that topic for a different Spock post.
As Dead As Can Be. . .
Polioff ~ again, not citing the research he’s referring to, said that  
while both research and common sense indicate students should be taught some form of penmanship, there is simply no need to teach students both print and cursive.
An archivist would beg to differ.

And that is the most compelling argument that I have read so far in this debate.   Katie Zezima in the NYT talked to Jimmy Bryant, Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Central Arkansas.   
While teaching last year, Mr. Bryant, on a whim, asked students to raise their hands if they wrote in cursive as a way to communicate. None did.

That cursive-challenged class included Alex Heck, 22, who said she barely remembered how to read or write cursive. Ms. Heck and a cousin leafed through their grandmother’s journal shortly after she died, but could barely read her cursive handwriting.
If students can’t read a family member’s handwriting, how can they be expected to read this?
The Constitution of the United States
© Onur Ersin
And if they can’t read the Constitution, will they be willing to fight to preserve the freedoms it represents?

It Killed Off the Romans. . .
Most of the arguments against cursive all have one thing in common: we are preparing our students to live in the 21st century, not the 19th.   But this argument itself is as old as the hills.  People have been decrying tradition since the Tower of Babel ~ and probably before that!  Not to mention that it just reeks of arrogance ~ everyone who came before was an imbecile trapped in the chains of a patriarchal society, araghargahgahrgah!

In psychology, we call this letting others dictate your actions, or, handing power over to one’s attacker.  Which, if I’m not mistaken, is exactly what the great creative minds of past centuries did NOT do.  They are considered great and their contributions to society lauded because they built on the past, lived in the present, and looked to the future ~ despite all odds.  Built on the past. 

Not trashed it because it didn’t make the budget cut.

And let’s be honest.  That is the real driver here.  Filthy lucre.  And I get it, I really do.  I budget.  I turn a blind eye to it when I see a vintage hat I just have to have, but I do know how to create and (generally) follow one.  Parents and teachers screamed for computers in every classroom and those nifty interactive white board thingies.  And those nifty techie gadgets cost more than paper and pencils.  So the schools bought them ~ by cutting other items out of the budget.  That’s how budgets work.  Rob Peter to pay Paul.

So now Dick and Jane can surf the net at school and research online.  Just don’t ask them to write a well-constructed sentence without using LOL, CUL8TR, or IMHO.  But hey!  Those computer skills will serve them well in finding good paying jobs in the future!

And Now It’s Killing Me.
Which brings me to my next question: what about the students who can’t afford a computer?  Or a laptop or tablet?  Teaching only typing because we now live IN THE AGE OF COMPUTERS (cue dramatic B-movie music) seems a little short-sighted and dismissive of those who cannot afford them.  And I should know.

When I was a liberal arts major, I cannot tell you how often I heard what a waste of time it was to study history, English, philosophy, and theology.  Yet in an unstable economy like we have today, even my business major friends are struggling to find work.  But I will always be able to write well and analyze data ~ skills honed from hours spent researching and writing my thesis and the countless papers from other classes.  Papers I wrote long-hand before typing them in the computer lab.

Yes, I am that old.  And yes, I was that poor. 

And for those of us who don’t have the luxury of owning a laptop or tablet, printing notes during class or a meeting is a recipe for disaster.  Unless you know shorthand (I really doubt that’s taught anymore!), cursive is faster.  Most people’s brains compute faster than their hands (or mouths) can keep up.  Cursive writing helps level the field.  You don't need a study to know that ~ it's a fact known through field work.

I think that to deny students access to knowledge of cursive writing is to do them a disservice ~ especially those who may be future novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, etc.  Some of my best ideas have come to me in a field surrounded by nature ~ no wifi and power cords.  Just me and my leather-bound journal.

Speaking of which, time to write another post in cursive in my paper notebook.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What do you think?  Do you still write in cursive?
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