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January 23rd, 2012

Recently, in another forum, a woman I used to babysit for was ranting about the fact that "they're no longer teaching cursive in schools." Hmmm.

Ah. Handwriting. When I was growing up, the handwriting in my house was a joy to behold. Daddy went through a spell of being very sick when he was at the age when students were learning cursive. He was stuck in bed for several months, and to make the time pass (this was the 1920's, and even radio wasn't omnipresent), he practiced his penmanship. He developed this wonderful hand, that was pointy, and angular, and...gorgeous. One of my most treasured possessions is four lines of verse he wrote for me, in his own hand.

Momma, on the other hand, was a product of Palmer Method. Moreover, as she was naturally left-hand dominant (back in the 30's, when teachers routinely smashed the hands of students using their left hands for pretty much anything), learning Palmer method with her non-dominant hand was a trial--one, like so many, she assailed, crushed, and danced on in triumph. Her hand was gorgeous--round, flowing. Even when the schleroderma and arthritis made writing a trial, her hand was beautiful and legible.

It is no wonder, then, that as a child and teenager I wanted my penmanship to be beautiful but distinctive. I took a bit from Daddy, a lot from Momma, and put my own spin on it. Writing hurts these days, but when I take the time, even now, people look at my handwriting and say "Your handwriting is beautiful," and for a moment it feels like Momma has her hand on one shoulder and Daddy the other, squeezing with pride.

With all of that, it may come as a surprise that when Lisa ranted about the lack of cursive instruction in the classroom my response can best be summed up by the phrase "So what?"

Perhaps my problem comes from knowing too much about the history of writing. Our cursive manuscript today is derived primarily from Carolingian Miniscule. Carolingian Miniscule was a hand developed for governing purposes to speed up the time it took to make multiple copies of documents from the Emperor Charlemagne to distribute to vassals and government officials (he who also thought that teaching people to read was a good thing). The calligraphy used before CM was labor intensive and took a significant amount of time, but the connected nature of the letters in CM, which meant fewer lifts of the pen from the vellum or parchment, increased the copier's speed.

Most cursive hands since (excepting extremely ornamented hands like Spencerian and others of that sort) have been devised mostly for legibility and speed of transcription. When the bulk of writing is done by hand, it is essential to make that writing readable and quickly produced.

However, it has been a long time since government and business relied primarily on handwritten documents. And for at least the last twenty years even those documents with sections to be filled in by hand have had,in teeny tiny letters, "Block letters only," or, in more polite circles, "Block letters please." A few years ago the U.S. Postal Service even sent out a communique informing the public that envelopes and packages addressed with cursive script were not guaranteed delivery. Hell--they don't even want you to use upper and lower case!

In academia, at every level, more and more "writing" is done in an electronic environment, with a keyboard, even for in-class and standardized tests. And when scribing is done, block letters work perfectly well (and when done with an electronic stylus and pad, block works even better).

Cursive script, as it existed for those of us who were schooled before the 1980's, is not the same as it is now. It does not serve the same utility, and it was for that utility--legible, quickly written documents--that it occupied time in the classroom. Given the amount of material an elementary teacher has to get through, given the time it takes to teach students cursive, if they have no need for it (and, let's face it, they really don't), then teaching it in school becomes uselessly quaint. Cursive script is now most appropriate for calligraphic purposes, and that is how it should be taught. In art class.

However, if they start getting rid of the teaching of writing altogether, I'll have a problem, because that will be throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

I look forward with no more joy than the next person to attics empty of letters written in beautiful cursive hands, where you can tell Grandma's letters from Aunt Josie's without even reading the names, but those days are gone. And holding onto the relic that is the cursive hand will not change that.