It has recently come to Mister Boomer’s attention that there is a debate going on in education circles about the teaching of cursive writing. That’s right, the handwriting standard of our childhood is being re-evaluated for the twenty-first century student. Does this mean the writing is on the wall for the handwriting style of our youth?
Cursive writing has been around hundreds if not thousands of years. Practically every culture developed their own form and style. The idea was a simple one: create legible words out of a single, complex line. By not having to lift the stylus or quill from the receiving medium, the chance for smudges was diminished while writing speed was gained.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cursive writing of Western civilization was raised to a high art form. Possessing a beautiful handwriting style was looked on as a symbol of status and literacy. As such, it was mainly practiced by the privileged. Yet by the time Abraham Lincoln became president, handwriting acquired a more utilitarian feel than the flourishes of John Hancock a century earlier.
After all, that was the point; for hundreds of years all government and business transactions were recorded by hand. When Christopher Latham Sholes introduced the first commercially-made typewriter in 1867, not much changed for cursive writing. Then in 1878, Sholes received a patent for a new keyboard layout that was instantly known as QWERTY, since those were the characters of the top alphabet row on Latham’s keyboard.
Early typewriters held keys arranged in alphabetical order. When struck, the keys sent a metal arm that held a letter die on its end in an arc that ultimately struck a ribbon containing ink, thereby transferring the letterform to paper. Typists could strike the keys faster than the mechanical arms could move, which caused frequent clashes of the key arms. This resulted in lock-ups — the nineteenth century version of our digital crash. Since Sholes stood to gain financially by the sale of his typewriter, which was manufactured by Remington, he sought to diminish the clashes in an effort to speed up typing. He placed the keys in the QWERTY configuration for the simple reason of separating the mechanical key arms to avoid the problems. That did the trick, and the sale of typewriters rose dramatically. It wasn’t long before the by-hand cursive writing that was used for centuries for documenting government and business transactions was replaced by machine-generated writing, powered by the hands of skilled typists. It is worth noting that while many have tried to replace the QWERTY keyboard, itself a relic of a mechanical rather than digital era, Mr. Sholes’ keyboard layout is the de facto standard to this day.
Despite the success of the typewriter, cursive writing remained an absolutely necessary part of every educational system, until today. We boomers recall the drills in second and third grade that taught us to form letters, connecting each with an efficient swoop that flowed through to the next. First we made disconnected letters of the alphabet that held half-connections, using lined paper as our guide. The teacher would swing her arm in the air, mimicking the graceful strokes we were to make with our pencils. Though results did vary, somehow, we all managed to learn the process, and went on to create actual words from our roller-coaster letterforms.
Mister Boomer was never great at cursive writing, but his level of dexterity served him well enough through his school years and into college. At that point, his family bought their first typewriter for the task of making term papers — a used 1929 Underwood. Ultimately, Mister B’s handwriting, like that of many boomers, devolved into the chicken scratch it is today. Yet Mister B still writes “snail mail” letters and cards, and even the occasional blog entry starts out as scrawls on paper.
Now some teachers and educators are saying that the time has come to abandon the teaching of handwriting altogether. Teachers complain that with everything they are required to teach, there just isn’t time. Education professionals are saying in a world where kids are sending e-mail and texts at earlier and earlier ages and machines display our written words, it has become obsolete. Still others point out that the law does not require cursive writing for the signing of legal documents. Indeed, they argue, a good many of us have already developed our own form of writing that combines the elements of separate print-block letters with cursive connections in select combinations. You’ll find this type of writing prevalent in many office memos tacked onto bulletin boards or Post-It notes stuck to printouts of e-mails by boomer-aged managers and professionals alike.
On the side of keeping with the traditional teaching of cursive writing, one argument is that learning the discipline teaches hand-eye coordination and dexterity. It is often the defining time a child encounters for certain whether they are right- or left-handed. Once upon a time, even in boomer school years, writing with the left hand was greatly discouraged, and frowned on. Fortunately, ancient superstitions (the Latin word for “left” was “sinister”) have slowly disappeared and we now know it’s just as “normal” and “human” for a person to write with the right or left hand. Teaching handwriting can continue to dispel the myths. Others argue that children will also be required to read historical documents as far into the future as we can see, and they should be able to do so without a historical interpreter. Therefore, children at least need to read it if not write it. Hand-written notes, though certainly diminishing in numbers, are another big reason cited to keep teaching the method. They argue that nothing is more personal, or appreciated, than a hand-written note, whether it’s an invitation, thank you or personal sentiment. Still others point to the inability to write in a cursive manner as yet another indication of an overall decline in literacy skills.
Add a flickering projector noise and let it burn through partially into it, and this video wouldn’t be out of place with the educational films we saw in our boomer school days. But stick with it in its entirety, because the content is the key, and there’s an interesting twist in the end.
Cursive writing isn’t a relic of our youth just yet. It’s still being taught in a majority of state school systems, though several have de-emphasized it. How about it, boomers? Where do you weigh in on this debate? Is the cursive writing taught in our youth unnecessary for the world of today’s youth?