Thursday, July 14, 2011

So Long, Cursive! See Ya!

Stephen Malkmus--"Pencil Rot(live)" (mp3)

When I was young, there was a commercial on TV for a deodorant call Mitchum. As you might guess from the name, it was a man's deodorant. In the commercial, a hunky guy with a hairy chest who hasn't quite gotten out of bed yet looks you in the eye and says something like, "I didn't use my deodorant today and I may not tomorrow....because I feel really dry."

That wouldn't cut it today. Forget the fact that it sounds like the guy must have spread ceiling paint under his arms with a roller brush to get that kind of perspiration seal, there is also the small matter of taking a shower once in a while. I've never heard anyone brag about the mileage that they got out of their deodorant stick. "Yeah, I've been nursing this baby for going on two years now."

It reminds me of the original Wendy's Hamburgers commercial where they went on and on about all of the extra napkins that you would need while eating one because they were so "hot and juicy." Juice being grease, of course.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to another idea which seemed vital, to someone, at the time but whose time has now apparently passed--cursive writing.

You had to have seen it coming. I know I did. It dawned on me about fifteen years ago that, you know, I don't use cursive writing for anything but my signature, and that has deteriorated to where it's nearly unreadable. Nope, I don't think my own personal use of cursive made it past college. By grad school, and certainly by the time I started grading papers as a profession, I had reverted back to what I consider to be man's natural state--printing. Though how long that will last is anyone's guess at this point.

Cursive's imminent death is somewhat more official. Now that the state of Indiana's Department of Education has taken cursive off of "mandatory" status in favor of keyboard proficiency, the dominoes are likely to fall at a rapid pace. Goodbye, it seems, to the loops and flourishes of the grand writing style of old.

Me, I'm for it. I can't speak for the generations that followed, but I spent far too much time in school practicing cursive script. Anytime I see those writing tablets with rows of two thick lines spread about an inch apart with a dotted line running between them in the middle, I get anti-nostalgic. Those were not the good old days. And I had good handwriting. I got good grades in penmanship. But the thought now that students were drilled and graded on handwriting makes me shake my head in wonder. The thought of an "F" on a report card in handwriting disgusts me.

Of course, there are critics of the Indiana handwriting decision, mostly notably arguments in conservative circles that handwriting builds character. I think that's bullshit. I mean, I get the point about individuality and all of that, but that can be handled in so many other school ways, like art class.

No, anecdotally speaking, I've not had students in my 29 years of teaching brag about their handwriting or talk about how they wouldn't be wouldn't be who they are today had they not had mandatory cursive training during elementary school. Instead, what I've had over the years are a wealth of students apologizing for their handwriting, telling me I probably can't read it, oozing low self-esteem for their lack of proper penmanship.

I think back to my own elementary years and all of the hours upon hours that we spent working on cursive. If you drew a picture, you had to write a cursive "story" about it, or vice-versa. If you sat at your desk practicing cursive, the teacher would walk around and correct your lines in loops, using a red pen to show you the proper way to draw the letters. In memory, it was during the periods of writing drill instruction that the most agitated kids would really lose it. What was the motivation? What was the reward? What was the kid who couldn't reach the lines or stay inside of them supposed to do? There was only one answer: practice, practice, practice some more.

For years, I read AP English exams. During a week of that, you see every possible kind of handwriting known to man or woman. The good thing, from my standpoint, was that I learned that I could read almost any handwriting. The bad thing, from cursive's perspective, was that all of those years of cursive training made little difference in how 18-year-olds write. Taken as a whole, today's high school writers use a mishmash of all of the printing and cursive writing they did and didn't learn. They use what they need to communicate. I doubt any of them can write a capital "Q" or a capital "Z" in cursive.

Pedagogically, that brief elementary training makes no sense. Hey, kids, we're going to practice something for a few years when you're young, punish you academically if you aren't good at it, regardless of where you are in your fine motor skill development, and then leave you to let your skills deteriorate for the rest of your lives, so that you have one more academic deficiency to apologize for when you get older.

My handwriting used to be just fine. Back then. But, no, I will not be writing any eulogies for cursive. I celebrate its imminent demise and welcome whatever takes its place. One complaint among the defenders of cursive is that students will no longer learn how to write a signature. Yeah, maybe. But how many times do we really sign our name in a given year anyway? How many checks are we writing? Won't a printed signature work? Or a holographic symbol? Or an eye scan? I don't understand why so many critics of dropping cursive are acting as if printing does not exist.

Sorry, cursive, I won't miss you one bit. I'll just miss all of the time I wasted on you. Consider this some dirt kicked on your grave.


Billy said...

The deaths I will celebrate more heartily than that of cursive:
(1) Voldemort
(2) The Emperor
(3) Comic Sans

Hank said...

We had an employee in our office a few years ago who could not write cursive outside of his own signature. This only came up because when we do big mailings, everybody has to pitch in and sign the boss's name to some letters. So instead of "David", he signed 250+ letters "Gavid" and hilarity ensued.

Billy Bob said...

Hank, Google+ me, dude.

KateGladstone said...

Handwriting matters ... But does cursive matter? 

Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citation on request.) 

Reading cursive still matters -- this takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification  for writing it. 

Remember, too: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don't take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

Kate Gladstone — CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
Director, the World Handwriting Contest
Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting trainer app for iPhone/iPad

cinderkeys said...

Shoot. I remember hearing somewhere that learning cursive helped kids who had ... some kind of learning disability? Autism? I don't remember. But there was some benefit that had nothing to do with cursive itself.

I heard something similar about learning how to tell time on an analog clock.

I can't find citations for either of these. Oh well.

KateGladstone said...

Well, Cinderkeys, you have a lot of company. Over and over, I hear from people who claim "there is research somewhere to prove" that writing in cursive makes you smarter or more athletic or more moral, or raises your IQ or cures autism, or something of that sort ... When I ask for the citation, either they get all annoyed that I "won't just believe what is so obviously true," or they say they'll get back to me when they find it (then they never get back to me), or sometimesI've been given the title of some paper that they say is the research ... But when I actually read it, it's no such thing, (Often, it's a study on handwriting vs. typing, that the person who provided the title asks me to believe was really a study on cursive handwriting vs.
other handwriting ... The eight or ten times this has happened to me, it turned out that the other person hadn't actually read the research paper s/he wanted me to read, but had simply taken the word of some friend or colleague — who, it often turned out, likewise hadn't read it before recommending it — that this was research on cursive.)

cinderkeys said...

I'm not annoyed that other people won't believe me without a citation. I'm annoyed that I can't remember the sources.

If my understanding of said sources are wrong, that's just fine. Cursive wasn't a terribly productive use of time in second grade.