Jerome Shea September 28, 2009 Weekend Wonk
I suppose because I am a teacher, a friend sent me an article last week which noted the decline of cursive writing practice in our schools (“Penmanship Losing to Computers”). Had I noticed a change over the years? My first response was that I hardly ever see my students’ handwriting, cursive or otherwise: all the work that I grade, they do on computers (and if someone used a “cursive” font, I’m afraid the irony would be wasted on me: don’t get cute, I’d say). Then I remembered that I am treated to page after page of handwriting every year, when I grade those Advanced Placement essays. Most I can decipher, though some scrawl really tries my patience. More on that later.
(Just to be clear, “cursive” writing, as opposed to printing, is the kind where you connect the letters in your words, and most of the letters have shapes different from those of printed letters. One supposed virtue is speed: you go faster if you don’t have to lift your pen at every letter, “cursive” coming from the Latin verb meaning “to run”). Typically, little kids first learn to print and then, in what some see as a rite of passage, a rite that the Long-suffering Diana begins with her second graders, they start to learn cursive. In bygone days, some schools awarded fountain pens to those who finally mastered the art of handwriting. That must have been a proud day, a red letter day.
I can write in cursive (I almost never print) though it is pretty much limited to to-do and grocery lists, comments on student papers, and my notes on the blackboard. My students gave me a B+ for legibility when I asked to be graded the other morning. My “hand,” as we used to say, is serviceable but hardly elegant. I learned cursive under the stern gaze of the good nuns back at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and what they used was the Palmer Method. Partners in crime, I’d say. I still remember the numbing drills, the circles and the push-pulls. I remember that we were encouraged to use the whole forearm, something that still strikes me as deeply perverse. Because of Mr. Palmer’s method, I thought cursive writing was so called because it involved profanity. Prophetically, all the freshmen in my prep school had to take typing. Brother Michael. First period. Every day. At LaSalle, all papers had to be typed. We never looked back.
Of course, the villain in the piece is the computer. It’s the old story of changing technology. We went from sticks scratching in the dirt to quill pens to Bics to typewriters and finally to the computer and all the wonderful software that goes with it. Most teachers (there are heroic hold-outs) argue that with only so many hours in the day, teaching computer skills (keyboarding, if nothing else) deserves the time that used to be given over to handwriting instruction and practice. Hard to argue with that, really.
I don’t know how I feel about the issue; maybe I’m writing this wonk to find out. I called on my trusty sounding board, Judy and Joe, for their views. They both feel somewhat more strongly about it than I do. Judy points out that kids don’t pass notes in class anymore…they just text! And she adds (a tad primly), “My handwriting AND signature are totally legible.” Joe weighs in with his signature eloquence, “…does anyone really know how direct the link is between thought and handwriting? Think of all the billions of letters, diaries, memoirs, etc. that came from the authors’ brains through the nerves of the right or left hand to paper.” And speaking of letters, i.e., the world of letters, we have celebrated examples of writers who absolutely refuse to create with a typewriter or computer, others who abjure the computer but who will defend their old Smith Coronas (manual, of course) to the bitter end. Clearly these are matters of magic to them: to compose on a Mac (as I am doing right now) is to insult the Muse and send her packing. Right. Whatever.
Back to the Advanced Placement kids. My recollection is that a good many of them print. I won’t hazard a percentage but it might be almost half. Perhaps they were never taught cursive, though frankly I doubt that. More likely some teacher finally said, “Chuck, your handwriting is so atrocious that I can hardly puzzle it out (and you are going to be blown out of the water when you take your SATs and your APs). From this day forward, I want you to print your stuff.” I suspect, too that these kids are very proficient at printing and can do it almost as fast as their classmates can write cursive. But I do get that atrocious handwriting from time to time. If it is absolutely illegible to you, you pass it up the line to the table leader (which—yikes!—will be me next June). I think of it as the equivalent of mumbling, (another infuriating habit) and if you have been reading for three hours without a break it is hard not to get furious at the kid, as if he were poking you in the eye with a blunt stick just to see your reaction. So, yes, truly bad handwriting can hurt you, hurt your chances. But here is an irony that I have observed, and I come back to Joe’s musings on the relationship to thought and handwriting. In my experience, the very best AP writers, the really inventive, witty ones with striking vocabularies and so forth, do not have the best handwriting. It is legible, of course, but hardly calligraphic. On the other hard, the aggressively beautiful handwriting (curlicues, circles dotting the i’s—you can spot it a mile away) quite often barely conceals vapid and vacuous thought.
I think we need to come back to this next week. Stay tuned.
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