Why Cursive Still Matters

According to Anne Trubek, author of a forthcoming book on the history and future of handwriting, and an advance selfie-blurb in the New York Times, “handwriting just doesn’t matter” anymore and should not be taught in elementary schools. Instead, students should be given a short course in printing and then quickly move on to typing skills. I beg to differ.

But before I do, I should be fair and mention that I am of an older, pre-digital generation and have been writing in cursive since I was eight years old. In fact, I am so habituated to cursive that I find it awkward and slow to hand print; when I’m filling out all those redundant forms in a doctor’s waiting room, I soon switch from printing to script because my hands get tired doing what they’re not accustomed to doing—and too bad for the smart young things at the desk who can’t read cursive.

Thus I am admittedly taking a traditionalist position here, consciously and deliberately counter to the futurist stance of Trubek and others who agree with her denigration of cursive. Being a traditionalist, however, does not—I repeat DOES NOT—delegitimize my argument. No more than being a futurist legitimates any argument against cursive.
So, what are Trubek’s arguments against the teaching of cursive (also called script, handwriting, longhand, etc.)? As already noted, one is that handwriting is old fashioned, outdated, and therefore as irrelevant to today’s world as Grandma’s old icebox (well, I guess it’s great Grandma’s). It is time, therefore, to consign handwriting to the same rubbish heap or museum as that icebox, and as those old ways of writing Trubek lists—carving on stone (which was never used for day to day writing, anyway), quill pens, and typewriters. But fountain pens are still widely used (I had a student once who had bought a cheap one and loved it—but I did have to demonstrate to him how to use it correctly), and typewriters are something of a fad among the young (like vinyl records). Stone cutters are still doing what they’ve always done: carving letters on headstones and monuments. Nothing is superseded entirely.

Trubek’s primary argument is a utilitarian one—in the digital age, handwriting is impractical and therefore no time should be wasted on teaching it. It is “superannuated.” One can write faster, and therefore more, by typing than by handwriting; and, glories of glories, one can write better! She asserts that “there is evidence that college students are writing more rhetorically complex essays, and at greater length, than they did a generation ago.” Hopefully, she will cite the “evidence” for this assertion in her forthcoming book, but until then I will continue to wonder why American students do so much more poorly than students in other countries on language skills and why college graduates appear to have serious deficits in writing skills. My own experiences as a college English instructor confirm the findings of large-scale tests: Students today do not write better than they did in the past, nor I have noticed that all the social-media writing that young people engage in has improved their writing skills.

Now, I am not asserting that teaching handwriting, in and of itself, will have any effect on the more global aspects of writing (organization, development of thought, etc.), but nor can one assert that teaching handwriting diminishes those skills. One need only look at the diaries and letters of, say, nineteenth-century Civil War soldiers, virtually none of whom attended school past the age of fourteen, to see that. I have in my possession a letter my paternal grandmother wrote to one of her sisters during the Great Depression; neither woman attended college, in fact what formal education they received occurred in a one-room schoolhouse in a small town near their family homestead in the Ozarks of southern Missouri—yet Grandma obviously could write, well and thoughtfully (on the political issues of the day), and, lordamercy, in a clear, readable cursive!

Frankly, to argue for the superior cognitive effects of computer typing is as bogus as arguing for the superior cognitive effects of cursive—after all, neither manual skill is about content, but only about means. Of course, I would not today compose this essay by hand on a yellow legal pad—I would never want to go back to the pre-word-processor days—all that White Out and carbon paper and retyping entire pages to correct one or two sentences is not for me! But I don’t want to give up handwriting either—in fact, my outline for this essay, and my margin comments on Trubek’s article, were handwritten in cursive on paper. The differing writing technologies available to us today are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

There is, however, one very good reason for knowing how to write in longhand: privacy. The digital world today is massively intrusive—cookies trace every move one makes on the Internet, the giant digital corporations make a mockery of web privacy, and hackers and government surveillance agencies sneak around in the background looking for vulnerabilities and suspicious activities. Just as one minor but truly exemplary instance: the other day I received yet another email from a major retailer (from whom I had recently purchased a big-ticket item) advertising their goods; rashly, I clicked on one of the items, just to satisfy my curiosity as to what such a thing would cost, and for the rest of the day, every time I went to a news media site, up popped another one of that retailer’s ads for that very item. We are getting very close to a ubiquitous media/advertising environment like that depicted in the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report.” Maybe in fact we’re already there.

But when I write something down on a slip of paper, or write an entry in a real diary, or otherwise make use of the superannuated skills of pen or pencil on paper, I am engaging in something truly private, totally inaccessible to hackers and algorithms, even these days to the prying eyes of all those who are unable to read cursive. I can express myself (not my social-media-self) without worrying or caring about the necessity of self-censorship. And I can do so anywhere under any conditions—I don’t need an electrical outlet or batteries. I can write by sunlight, or candlelight if need be. And if I don’t like what I wrote, or I want to ensure that no one else can ever read my private thoughts, I can burn the papers or send them through a shredder. There is no eternal cloud for pen-on-paper, no wayback machine to dig up some random and ill-conceived thoughts from the past. In cursive, there is still the privacy of the self. That makes teaching handwriting to students a true and wonderful gift. No reasons of utility or timely relevance are needed.

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