The End of Cursive?

May 13th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Once again, a debate over whether to continue teaching cursive has arisen.

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Every once in a while, someone publicly wonders whether – in this digital age where it barely seems relevant anymore – our kids should be taught penmanship in school. At issue: Is cursive a dying art form whose importance lies mainly in its aesthetic value, or is practicing cursive an irreplaceable way of strengthening the connections between hand and brain?

The topic came to my mind recently as an unrelated side note in a conversation with a hotel marketing executive in which we both admitted to writing our most complicated thoughts longhand, agreeing that somehow the time that the thought took to travel from brain through ink cartridge gave it just a little more time to solidify. Last week The New York Times raised the cursive issue again in a much-debated article by Katie Zezima.

Students are still taught cursive, Zezima wrote, but many districts now teach it in the third grade – with fewer lessons – as opposed to curricula that used to begin in third grade and sometimes continue until the eighth grade. But with schools focused on preparing students for standardized tests, educators are saying that there’s not enough time to teach handwriting. One school principal in Cohoes, NY, who is contemplating cutting cursive from her school’s agenda, said to the Times, “Schools today, we say we’re preparing our kids for the 21st century. Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?”

Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture and founding advisor of Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, argues in The Atlantic that preserving cursive handwriting is neither “retro sentimentality or neo-Luddism.” He writes, “No, it’s good teaching and good neuroscience.” In fact, he says, it’s surprisingly relevant technologically, noting that Steve Jobs has called his calligraphy course at Reed College a formative experience, and that many of the most popular fonts for Mac and PC were created by designers with calligraphic training.

Sandy Schefkind, a pediatric occupational therapist in Bethesda, Md., and pediatric coordinator for the American Occupational Therapy Association, told the Times that learning cursive helped students hone their fine motor skills. “It’s the dexterity, the fluidity, the right amount of pressure to put with pen and pencil on paper,” Ms. Schefkind said, adding that for some students cursive is easier to learn than printing.

The Village Voice’s Jen Doll argues that since the majority of us don’t write on cave walls anymore, the death of cursive isn’t a big deal, and that “if progress has killed cursive, then, well…R.I.P. cursive.” The fact, she says, that most kids can’t read back their own notes isn’t because kids these days aren’t smart, it’s because “cursive sucks!...And, in our modern day keyboard-and smartphone-focused lifestyles, we simply don't need it. Like the vestigial tails of our evolutionary youth, holding a pen or pencil, writing on those reminders of tree death we call ‘paper’…. is simply not important now.”

Bryan Palmer at Slate says that the kind of “hand-wringing” and inevitable annual article on the demise of handwriting shouldn’t make anyone panic. In fact, he says, since it will never go away, we might as well be teaching it to kids the right way. “Sure, it's possible that smartphone keyboards outfitted with Swype or T9 will take on this role as a secondary, informal mode of communication,” he says. “But there's very little indication that handwriting is on its way out, or that the majority of the U.S. population can text faster than they can write.”

Where do you stand: Important link between hand and brain, dying art, or contributor to “tree death”? Got another take? Share it here.