The Need for Cursive Writing?

This article is a few months old, but I just saw it, and it got my hackles up. I’m not sure what’s scarier, that this is even a debate or the level of argument that is being put forth by these educators

The first thing I want to ask Ms. Avery, who advocates teaching cursive, to prove her statements of “fact.” Her first point is demonstrably wrong:

If students can’t write cursive, they can’t read cursive. And if they can’t read cursive, how can they read historical documents, like the Declaration of Independence?

She has it backward. You can’t write in a hand if you can’t read it, not the other way around. I can’t write cursive. I gave it up after graduating high school and haven’t looked back; it’s been thirty years since I’ve written in cursive and my penmanship has atrophied to nothing. Yet I can read cursive without difficulty. I can also read Anglo-Saxon Miniscule, Anglicana, and Elizabethan Secretary hand, yet I never been able to write a lick in any of of these hands. Being able to read a hand and being able to quickly and legibly write in it are two entirely different skills.

Ms. Avery says that cursive is “intrinsically human.” Really? If it were indeed intrinsically human, it wouldn’t need to be taught. We would know how to do it from birth. Cursive writing is a technology, just like keyboarding or texting, except that it is an obsolescent one.

Ms. Avery claims that cursive is faster than block printing Are there studies to back this up? I can print legible block letters pretty darn quickly.

She claims that practicing penmanship develops fine motor skills. Is this so, and does it do it better than other activities? Are there articles that demonstrate this in peer-reviewed physiological journals? I don’t know the answers, but I suspect they’re no, but I don’t know that for sure.

Because students are continually distracted by technology, they spend fewer hours reading, which translates to inadequate “internalizing of language.”

Again, is there evidence for this? If this is true, why is it that the students who text the most tend to score highest on tests of language ability? And what does “fewer hours of reading” have to do with penmanship? If students need more reading, stop wasting their time with outmoded skills and let them use the time to read.

Many of them tell me that they couldn’t begin to understand their poem until they copied it by hand.

I would bet that teaching close reading skills would achieve Ms. Avery’s goal just as well, if not better, than a rote copying exercise. (Frankly, making students copy out poetry by hand reeks of mindless busy work that has no place in a classroom. I can’t think of any bigger waste of time that an English teacher could engage in.) Besides, why can’t they print the poem? That would achieve the same “internalizing” of the poem as writing it in cursive.

Penmanship is an art form.

Communication through handwriting will always be a necessity.

These two statements are contradictory. Art forms are, by definition, unnecessary. That is the point of art; we don’t need it. We create art because it elevates us; it takes us beyond what we simply need to do to survive and prosper. The appeal of a handwritten note comes from the fact that it is not necessary. Back in the days before typewriters when it was necessary, penmanship wasn’t considered charming or an art; it was merely a necessary skill.

In contrast, Mr. Ellis’s argument opposing the teaching of cursive is coherent and logical, although like Ms. Avery he fails to back up his statements with evidence other than personal anecdotes. As is said often, the plural of anecdote is not data. I would hope that professional educators writing advocacy pieces would rely on peer-reviewed studies, but that seems to be too much to hope for.

In an ideal world, I would enthusiastically support the teaching of penmanship, just as I firmly support the teaching of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, music composition, and similar skills. But the question is that given limited resources, should schools be mandating the instruction of outmoded technological skills in English class? Do we still take time out of math class to teach students how use a slide rule? Why should be doing the equivalent for instruction in language and literature?

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