Handwriting is on the Wall

I have just heard the news that cursive writing will no longer be taught in Ohio schools, making it the third state to abandon the skill (behind Indiana and Hawaii). The keyboard is king now, the thinking goes, making unnecessary a discipline that teaches manual dexterity at the fine motor level. In these modern times we live in, cursive is slowly being traded as a youth-learned skill in favor of manipulation of a joystick.

That’s pretty sad. We’re slowly losing something useful, something that was a rite of passage in our schooling, and something that serves as a unique identifier and perhaps even a mirror of our personality.

I say this in spite of my never having really gotten the hang of cursive. My penmanship was wobbly and inconsistent, and I always had to labor at it. Printing worked better for me, probably since I did an unusual amount of writing as a kid before the cursive lessons started. I was actually faster at printing, and over the years, my printing evolved into it’s own kind of cursive, though it doesn’t look anything like when I try to write in cursive. It’s neither writing nor printing, but it is distinctive.

Quality cursive is a subjective thing anyway. Two of my oldest friends vary widely in the quality of their penmanship. One has a tight, elegant, kind of writing that resembles a city skyline. It’s amazing looking and could be a font. The other writes in broad, palsied, wavy lines that look like Charles Schulz’s lettering in the last few years of his life. Even his printing is sad looking. But both are enormously successful in their respective fields.

What always amazed me was how cursive seemed to cookie cutter the handwriting of girls. Our cursive system turned out millions of girls who wrote with broad, loopy writing, the kind that seemed to encourage the dotting of “i’s” with tiny hearts or flowers. Being a callow youth, I immediately judged girls on this kind of penmanship, and I never dated anyone whose writing looked like that.

In fact, my wife has the most amazing handwriting I’ve ever seen. It took me a couple of years to be able to read it on the first pass. Her letters are long and thin and slant off to the right like a field of wheat bending in a breeze. The loops she pens are gracefully thin and tight, with just enough space inside to distinguish one letter from another. It’s graceful and compact and is as unique as she is.

My children, on the other hand, were educated during the ascendancy of the keyboard, and interestingly enough, they both lean more toward printing than any brand of cursive. Further, what training they did get in cursive managed to generify their penmanship, and their styles of printwriting are remarkably similar. Both have a practiced signature, but it consists mostly of straight lines occasionally interrupted by a loop. But as their father, I can tell them apart.

Perhaps it’s time for cursive to go, given how keyboards now dominate our lives. But that’s not a good thing. It was a good discipline to learn. It gave you a unique marker beyond the fingerprint. From personal experience, I can say that writing by hand gives you a more intimate connection with the words in your head. For most of the novels I’m working on or have planned, I already have opening scenes written by hand (including the soon-to-be-released The Mushroom Shift, which was the first time I wrote a first chapter by hand).

Time and progress leave things behind, and for better or worse cursive is looking more and more like a dinosaur. However, being modern has its price. I can’t imagine Sullivan Ballou’s letter or the train station scene in Casablanca being improved by a laser printed missive in perfect 12-point Times New Roman.

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3 responses to “Handwriting is on the Wall

  1. To me, the biggest shame is the fact that future generations essentially lose the ability to create a unique, identifying signature. Cursive was removed from Texas public schools several years ago (at least in the Austin area).

  2. I agree with David. I can’t imagine how legal documents will be signed if people don’t write cursive. Will they make their “X”?
    I won’t even mention the loss of intimacy needed to write personal thank you notes.

  3. I am a high school student who is trying to find a distinctive handwriting style. Up until last year i had a childish print scrawl and a generic cursive for writing english papers. Now I have a neat print that is neither masculine nor feminine, but it just doesn’t look like me. I would love to see some different types of cursive writing.

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