You blog/newsletter readers have already seen me rant about state efforts to mandate cursive education, but that earlier item didn’t run in the Concord Monitor. So I wrote a longer rant that ran in Tuesday’s paper, shown below. As of right now my email is leaning 3-1 on the “how dare you diss cursive?” side of the argument, including a scolding piece from the “past president of the Handwriting Analysis Society.”
When I was in high school I was taught to use a slide rule, even though the venerable technology had recently been made irrelevant by calculators.
The irrelevance didn’t matter to my gray-haired algebra teacher, who insisted it was still valuable to learn about what my dad called a slip-stick. Calculators may give instant accuracy to many decimal places, he said, but the slide rule creates a visual understanding of computation, provides a deep knowledge of logarithms, and teaches invaluable lessons about estimating.
Maybe so, but still irrelevant. I would have been much better served if he had spent the time discussing matrices, which confuse me to this day. Learning to manipulate a slide rule was a waste of class time.
You know what else is a waste of class time? Forcing New Hampshire elementary school teachers to spend less time teaching things needed for the 21st century so they can spend more time teaching things from the 19th century.
I refer to cursive writing, which our state legislature wants to make a mandatory part of public elementary school lessons. House Bill 170 would take an existing law that encourages “instruction in cursive handwriting” and make it a requirement by 5th grade.
There are good reasons to teach cursive writing, of course. It develops fine motor skills, it can be beautiful, it can keep a child interested while they absorb details about spelling and grammar and the English language, it is part of our cultural legacy. But the same can be said for teaching calligraphy, code-breaking and limericks.
Cursive used to be a mandatory skill because you needed it to function. Those days are gone, replacing by typing, speech-to-text and optical character recognition. These day writing in script is a relic, the lexicological equivalent of the slide rule.
I doubt if the average adult writes two sentences in cursive a month these days, except for their signature. (By the way, signatures printed in block letters are just as legal as any squiggly line.) And what was the last time you had to read anything in cursive?
Requiring the teaching of cursive would be reasonable if class time was infinite, but it’s not. Forcing teacher to add it to the curriculum will knock something else out – economists call this “opportunity cost” – and there are too many things children need to learn in this bewildering era to squander time on a nostalgia exercise.
It’s especially ironic that a demand for old-timey writing technology has emerged just as ChatGPT and other large language models are upending the whole concept of writing.
So why has this silly effort come forward? Two reasons.
One is that everybody thinks they’re an expert in education because we all attended school. Nobody ever argues with their road agent about the relative value of cold patch vs. hot top to fix potholes, but lots of people argue with their principal about the relative value of phonics vs. look-and-say to teach reading.
The other reason is more subtle.
Most advocates of cursive don’t really care about handwriting. They want to enforce cursive on kids because it’s a symbol to them of some fabled olden time, an era when the people they didn’t like weren’t so uppity and when society’s values were closer to their ideal. Or so they like to imagine.
Plus, if requiring cursive makes it harder to teach children about changes happening in the world so much the better to people who fear that change is hurting their status. It’s a feature, not a bug! (Although they’d never use that terminology; it’s too modern.)
The bill passed the state House and Senate and I imagine Gov. Sununu won’t miss this chance for some virtue signaling, so expect sales of Palmer Method Penmanship booklets to spike next fall.
I gotta say, though, that if my school district adds a budget line item for goose-quill pens, I’m voting “no” at town meeting.
David- I really enjoy your writing and generally agree with your stances, but on the topic of cursive I think you are so wrong. Cursive is a joy once you are good at it, and allows you to write faster (and more importantly get your thoughts down faster). I read and write a lot and this is important to me. I do type faster but I for one can’t stare at a computer screen for very long and find pen and paper to be a superior medium, but hey that’s my personal opinion. You noted some good counter arguments but dismissed them pretty quickly. It is important to maintain teaching cursive for our culture, fine motor skills, and just having beauty in the world. Do we really want to move our society to some sort of technocratic metaverse with no real contact with humans, or write personalized notes and letters that truly connect us in a real way? Besides it would be asinine and wasteful for everyone to carry around a laptop and printer v. a pen and pad.
David, I don’t why you are complaining about cursive so much. When I learned cursive in elementary school in the mid 1970s, it didn’t take me very long to gain the skill–it took only days, or a few weeks at the most. My Taiwanese wife can write a page in Chinese characters faster than I can write a text message of about the same length.
I’ve been studying Chinese for about twenty years now, and I love reading, speaking, and writing Chinese. I might not be as skilled as my wife is in writing characters, but I enjoy doing it as a great mental and cognitive exercise. In fact, I also love reading and writing English cursive. English cursive is a zip!
When I wrote my MA thesis, I first wrote it all–each and every manuscript page–in cursive. Then I transferred it to the computer for revision. Amazingly enough, the revision took at least three times as long as the handwriting. Eventually I revised it down to the final thesis which came out to about 150 pages. After it was all done, people told me that I was both more articulate and more critical than I had been before.
In recent years, I have met high school students (and a few college students) that can barely handwrite print, and they struggle to read English.
I can print my signature? That’s good news as my hand writing is so bad that I can’t read it either. This is a great article BTW.
I’m a fan of cursive as I’m a fan of beautiful prose, neither necessary to communicate, but enhances the common. Maybe if we rename cursive, “writing art” or “speed writing?” Well written.
Has Mr. Brooks contacted the advocates of handwriting to ask if they are actually advocating for those uppity social values as he claims?
The facts obtained by educational researchers and neuropsychologists are consistent in finding that students who write by hand (whether cursive, manuscript print, or some hybrid of the two) become better readers and write more than those who rely on keyboards, particularly in early grades as literacy skills are being established. The research findings have been similar in studies performed in North America, Europe, Israel, Japan, and China, using alphabets that are typical of the countries in which the writing or keyboarding has been performed.
Surprisingly, one British study found, quite by accident, that math skills improved for early learners when they wrote the numbers of the calculations instead of using digital devices.
fMRI studies are clear in noting that using writing skills links cognitive, language, motor, and emotion centers in the brain much more fully and efficiently than keyboard. The benefits apply to adults, too – adults experience improved memory and comprehension when writing notes by hand than attempting to transcribe information by keyboard.
Should digital devices be abandoned in preference to writing? Of course not. Both are needed. But when the brain is developing pathways for learning, the evidence is clear that students who write by hand activate more brain areas for learning and activate them more efficiently than those who rely on keyboards for reading and writing.
An internet search through Google Scholar or other platforms will quickly yield numerous recent articles regarding the benefits of handwriting for learning.
I loved your piece. I learned cursive in school. It was the “thing” 40 + years ago. As the years go by, it is less and less readable. I rely on today’s technology to spell and check my writing. Thank god, or I’d really look stupid.
Deacon Blue says “[cursive] allows you to write faster.”
Since high school, I’ve been intrigued with shorthand (what secretaries would use because their bosses could neither type nor spell). Perhaps that would be even better to teach than the Palmer Method!
You are correct learning to write is important in school but writing in cursive is not. As an adult cursive writing is useless and better subjects can be taught.
Glyph or character beauty or clarity is already achievable by choosing a font style, size, and color useful for the desired communication by computer. Why waste time learning cursive which quickly dissolves into illegibility for even the originator?
Talk to your road agent. EVERYBODY knows better how to maintain the roads. At least in my town. One of the primary skills of the road agent is extreme patience, just like a teacher.
Funny that an article about cursive writing has elicited more interest and responses than the ones about the end of the world.
Funny, perhaps, but not unexpected!
Getty-Dubay Italic is a modern teaching script for handwriting based on Latin script, developed in 1976 in Portland, Oregon, by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay with the aim of allowing learners to make an easier transition from print writing to cursive.
I’ve seen handwriting from students taught this method…legible , beautiful, easy to transition from printing to script. It basically teaches kids to join their printed letters. Easy peasy
I learned the Palmer Method 70 years ago. I still use it for notes to myself, and sometimes even I can’t read those. I started printing things at work (had to make extensive entries in a logbook) 50 years ago so it would it be legible. These days I see no need for teaching script, or cursive.
Anyone who owns property should be able to read cursive, if not write it. All the old deeds are handwritten in cursive. You may be surprised to find out who has rights to your land that are only vaguely referenced in current deeds.
Likewise, anyone doing historical research needs to read cursive. Have you read the draft of the Declaration of Independence, with changes? Even a fifth grader should know that its truths were not originally self-evident.
You can’t proceed into the future without understanding the past. Technology can’t solve everything. 21st century optical character recognition does not work very well with 18th century handwriting. There is still a need for knowing cursive.
Illustrating a point by comparing a slide rule to a calculator – an obtuse and ancient comparison in itself – and demanding that that applies to cursive is like saying that once the car was invented that no one should be taught how to ride a bike. Ridiculous. One skill set, even one that has advantages, doesn’t necessarily proscribe the use and benefits of another, albeit older yet still beneficial, process. This is particularly true when one considers the knock-on benefits of learning cursive, such as those noted about (reading, cognitive abilities, even math). C’ mon David, you can multi-task and you should expect your readers and American kids to be able to do the same.