By Sandy Nachlinger
Can you read the writing above? I was surprised to learn that many people can’t (and it’s not because they’re illiterate).
Way back in 1962-63, Mrs. Cox taught English and handwriting to 10th graders at Dallas’s Kimball High School. Penmanship for high school sophomores?! As you’d expect, everyone in the class moaned and groaned—me included. We’d all learned cursive when we were nine years old and had used it ever since, so why did we need to study it now? Why did we have to practice every letter, over and over? Why was the legibility of our handwriting a part of our grade? We even had to use ink pens—not ballpoints. But we grumbled through the once-a-week exercises anyway. Under Mrs. Cox’s tutelage, by the end of that year most of us could produce a legible handwritten report.
So, when a friend recently said her high-school daughter could barely read cursive, I couldn’t believe it. “It’s like a foreign language to her,” she said. “It’s no longer taught in school.” My shock was so great I had to sit down. No, she can’t be right, I thought. Her daughter must be dyslexic or something.
As always, when seeking information, I turned to the Internet. The number of hits that came up in my search surprised me. An item from The Washington Post, a National Public Radio broadcast, and articles from dozens of other sources (including education websites of various state governments) confirmed the awful truth: in the majority of public schools, cursive writing is taught only briefly, and often its use is optional after the 3rd or 4th grade. I also learned that although the SAT exam will require a handwritten essay, cursive writing is not required and printing (also called “ball and stick”) will be allowed. Based on this overwhelming evidence, I had to accept that cursive writing has become passé.
However, other articles I found stressed the value of teaching cursive and bemoaned its passing. Some educators said it fosters eye-hand coordination and believe forming cursive letters aids in learning to read. Others said that using cursive develops a certain part of the brain. Still another teacher promised that cursive writing helped left-handed students write legibly by positioning their papers properly, avoiding the curled-over left-hand posture.
Then I wondered about the long-term effects of this change in other areas. What will happen to all those handwritten letters I’ve saved over the years? Will they be decipherable in the future only by eccentric academics with training in Ancient Cursive Hieroglyphics? What about those wonderful handwritten memoirs from The Greatest Generation with their loopy capital L’s, crisp W’s, and Q’s that looked like the number 2? Will future generations be unable to learn from them or will they shrug and say, “It’s Greek to me”? Will future job applicants list “cursive” under “other languages” on their employment applications?
Poor Mrs. Cox. She must be spinning in her grave. As for me, I’m not sure how I feel about the demise of cursive writing. On the one hand, I’ll miss the graceful letters on a page. But then again, most handwriting I’ve seen lately has been almost indecipherable. If you can’t read what someone has written, then what is its value?
Of course, on the bright side, if I ever want a second career, I may be able to find work as a cursive translator.