John Foreman: The lost art of cursive handwriting
If you can read the picture accompanying this column, you are one of a diminishing number. It may very well be that your son — or your grandson — cannot. And the reason has nothing to do with literacy, legibility or native language.
You may identify it as a ragged bastardization of the Palmer Method, but in a few short years, it may be no more recognizable than the Dead Sea Scrolls to a great number of people.
Most schools are no longer required to teach cursive writing, and many do not. Their logic is simple: Children no longer need handwriting. Modern communication is done with a keyboard — email, text messages, what have you. Cursive is a useless art.
The federal government's new core curriculum for schools requires instruction in legible writing — printing — in kindergarten and first grade only. But individual schools and entire states were dropping cursive from their requirements even before that came along.
That means that within decades, simple cursive could well be a secret language of the elite, its daily use no more common than Latin.
But in the face of this trend, scholars from a number of disciplines are suggesting that something — maybe a great many things— will be lost.
Studies are emerging that show cursive has value beyond writing a letter to grandma. Psychologists from UCLA and Princeton have published research that shows students retain information better if they take notes by hand rather than using a laptop. And neuroscientists at Indiana and the University of Washington have demonstrated that cursive stimulates the brain in ways printing or typing does not. There are similar findings in France and Britain. The research is early, and not everyone is convinced. But even a skeptic like Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says the research is thought-provoking.
"With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what's important," he told the New York Times. "Maybe it helps you think better."
Maybe. But abandoning cursive has consequences beyond its impact on neurons. Those are what prompt the concern of Valerie Hotchkiss, director of the magnificent Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois.
Much of the world's history and literature is recorded in cursive, and primary research requires those original documents. Priceless letters, papers and manuscripts under Hotchkiss' care are handwritten — letters by Mark Twain, manuscripts by H.G. Wells, the papers of Gwendolyn Brooks, all cursive — and all Greek to some students now entering the UI. Perhaps 21st-century scribes will one day convert it all to bits and bytes so the masses can access it. But make no mistake that it will not be the same.
Handwriting is part practical and part aesthetic. Once, it was viewed as a window into the soul. Witness the pinched precision of a highly ordered mind. The hurried scrawl of the physician (or a newspaper reporter) tells us something. Who hasn't marveled at the fluid artistry of calligraphy or ancient Copperplate? View the script and it seems you know something of the writer. Can you doubt the sincerity of John Hancock's pledge of life, fortune and sacred honor when you view his signature across the Declaration?
The most moving monuments in Washington, D.C. — ones I try never to neglect — are glimpsed through a glass case in the National Archives. There rest faded originals of two documents that literally changed the world — the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I weep at the thought of an American child who could gaze at their majesty and see only lines on a page.
Think of the history and biography revealed by the handwritten letters and journals of those before us. The humble correspondence of ordinary soldiers provides much of the knowledge of our own Civil War.
Their names are lost to history, but not their observations and experiences. And if no historian ever wants to read your father's letters from Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima, won't your son or your grandson want to?
Some state legislatures are starting to adopt new requirements for cursive. Maybe that's the answer, but legislators already are making too many of the decisions about what teachers will teach. Better, some teachers are deciding on their own.
Hotchkiss recently organized the Rare Book Room's first-ever children's day camp — "Camp Cursive." In a room adjoining some of the world's most fragile papers, kids spent the entire day practicing letters and playing games and even trying out fountain pens for the first time. As best I could tell, they were having a heck of a good time without an electronic device in sight.
The day's primary instructor was Janet LeRoy, a third-grade teacher at Urbana's Leal School. She's never abandoned teaching cursive to her classes. Kids in her class can even pass notes if they're written in cursive. Requirement or no, she fits it in among all the other demands and believes maybe half of her peers do the same. It was a joy to watch her connect with the campers and to watch the kids respond to her.
There likely will be more Camp Cursives. (Undergrads who saw the fliers for it already have asked for one of their own!) And there should be. Hotchkiss hates to contemplate a student staring blankly at the handwritten manuscript of War of the Worlds — or even the pages of their own parents' love letters.
If we lose this skill, we lose artistry. We lose history. We lose understanding. We lose connection. And perhaps we lose even more.
John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.