I wrote the assignment on the board, white chalk on black slate. When the kid in the back row asked me to read it aloud, I was worried that he might need glasses. So I asked him. His answer floored me: “I can see fine; I just can’t read cursive.”
During my 27 years as an English teacher, I’ve watched cursive handwriting gradually disappear among high school students. The majority prefer to type on the computer and if forced to write by hand, they almost always choose print over cursive. Still, I wasn’t prepared for a student to admit so casually that he couldn’t read a simple set of hand-written instructions. I didn’t realize it had gotten quite so bad.
As a high school teacher, I’ve not been in a position to do much more than bewail this trend. My students were exposed to cursive a long time ago in grade school, but they were never required to use it. The habit was never ingrained in them. And so they have opted for “easier” print over the vastly more efficient (and more beautiful) cursive.
Typed, electronic communication accounts for nearly all of the writing that most people do. We don't need to write by hand, and so we don't.
To teach the dying art of handwriting would take all of a teacher’s time. And though I might like to pass along this small but treasured bit of culture, I could not “go old-school” on my students if that meant slighting my duties to teach them literature, composition, grammar, and vocabulary. Besides, what would be the point? Why teach a skill that’s rapidly becoming obsolete?
Good handwriting is no longer necessary. It’s a luxury, a frill. You really can get by today without having to write much by hand. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a job that still requires good penmanship. Even the term “penmanship” has an old-fashioned ring.
There was a time when my best students had the best handwriting. But that’s no longer the case. Some of my sharpest kids can produce no better than a sort of scribbled henscratch on the page. There is even an official learning disability, “dysgraphia,” that, as far as I can tell, means that the student can’t write neatly.
The death of handwriting, of course, has coincided with the rise of technology. After all, typed, electronic communication accounts for nearly all of the writing that most people do. We don’t need to write by hand, and so we don’t. And though I spend a good bit of time railing against technology, when it comes to its effect on the process of writing, I’m ambivalent. I actually love the computer as a writer’s tool.
I recall my college days, when I wrote everything by hand and typed afterwards. I’d sit at my desk with a legal pad, pen, and pair of scissors, trying to compose an essay on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I’d write a while, revise a while, then ball up the page, toss it aside, and start over again. After a few paragraphs, I’d begin rearranging, literally cutting and pasting with scissors and tape. Writing back then was a tedious and frustrating affair.
The computer makes the process so much easier. Good writers revise, revise, and then revise again. For me, the joy of writing is in the revising. I love cutting this and adding that; I love fiddling with phrases until they’re just right. And the computer allows me to revise more frequently and more comprehensively, so I stand a better chance of getting an idea across clearly than I do with pen and paper. I’m a better writer because of, not in spite of, the computer.
Still, I mourn for what’s been lost.
I think of monks in the Middle Ages and their gorgeous illuminated manuscripts.
…of Anthony Trollope, the great 19th-century novelist, who wrote 3,000 words a day by hand.
…of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.
…of the cool, backwards slant of left-handers.
…of the Briffaux twins, boys from Belgium I taught years ago, who attributed their graceful script to beatings delivered by schoolmasters who insisted on neatness.
…of handwritten notes from friends, real ink on real paper.
…and of my own signature, which intentionally runs my middle initial “B” into the “A” of my last name.
Maybe I’ll start a new organization: the SPCCA—the Society for the Preservation of Cursive in the Computer Age. Only one membership requirement would pertain: concern for how to revive a dying art.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as A Lost Art