Some friends asked me last week how I felt, as an historian, about the current assault on the teaching of cursive in public schools, and I had to admit that I didn’t know this was a thing. Long story short, with classroom time always at a premium, many school districts have replaced instruction in cursive writing with instruction in typing, the latter seemingly more relevant to our times. Apparently, concern over students’ resulting inability to read or write script has been growing for a while, but a Wall Street Journal story at the end of January brought the issue new prominence. Many people seem to think that continuing to teach students to write in cursive is important, and a handful of state legislatures have introduced bills to rectify the situation.
The question has a neat resonance with the history of education: writing may go back to being thought of pedagogically as a craft, just as it was before the nineteenth century, when it was something that boys learned while girls learned to sew. (See, in particular, E. Jennifer Monaghan’s work on this history). Beyond that, though, two central pieces of the “save cursive” argument resonate with historical questions.
One has to do with students educated in the internet age being unable read the handwritten documents of our past. This includes the recent and individual past – “birthday cards from their grandparents” – but also the country’s corporate past. Predictably, one particular document has become the central focus of concern: the danger of abandoning instruction in cursive, the Wall Street Journal story suggests, is “that children will no longer be able to read the Declaration of Independence.”
Well, yes they will–they will be able to read it in print, just like most Americans read it (to themselves and to others) until the first facsimile reproductions were produced from the engraving by William J. Stone in 1823. The facsimile turned the image of the artifact into what Michael Warner calls “a national fetish,” giving rise to a preoccupation with the image of the manuscript Declaration as the only authentic presentation of the text. Unless one is standing in front of the actual artifact, though, all versions, script as well as print, are the product of a process of mechanical reproduction. Insisting that something significant is lost if kids are unable to run a Google image search for the Declaration and read from a jpg seems like an oddly-placed concern. Moreover, the insistence that one be able to read the document in its “original” form is by definition an insistence that it be read in its original language, which has a certain resonance with the English-only debates that surface from time to time. It is not, I would argue, as if the ideas contained in the document are untranslatable, bound by language, needless to say by media.
Secondly, proponents of cursive appeal to an historical sensibility by pointing out that young people who don’t learn cursive will not know how to sign their names. Signatures, the assumption is, are important traces that we leave behind. In the Wall Street Journal story, the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Notaries lamented the loss of the physical signature as an historical trace. “If I go to a hotel and George Washington slept there, I can still read it,” he said. “If George Washington signed his name on an electronic signature pad, we’d have no idea he was there.” Well, I mean, I guess, if somehow every single person who saw George Washington at a Motel 6 failed to pull out their phones and take a picture. Those who are busy worrying about the lack of “material” traces should probably be more concerned with that fact that we all now leave more traces of our activities than any signer of the Declaration could have imagined.
On another level, the pro-cursive faction joins a long tradition of fixating on one form of written trace over others (see Josh Lauer, “Traces of the Real: Autographomania and the Cult of the Signers in Nineteenth-Century America” (Text and Performance Quarterly 27:2) for a particularly relevant account of the fetishizing of the signature). No one, as far as I can tell, is suggesting that schools give up on teaching kids manuscript printing, after all. Like those who were denied the ability to write in the past and left some other hand-made mark, however we “make our mark” in the future, it will still be ours.
In any case, history suggests that orthography changes and readers adapt. As someone who spends a lot of time reading dead people’s diaries, I think that very little of what I learned about penmanship in second grade has helped me to decipher their handwriting. Though some are more immediately legible than others, no two are the same–each new subject seems to demand learning a new script. And laſt week I aſsigned my American Religions claſs “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from a 1785 Book of Common Prayer printed in Philadelphia that uſed the long ſ. My ſtudents were challenged by it but ſeemed to have little trouble figuring it out, deſpite the fact that I don’t think any of them had ever ſeen it before outſide their calculus claſses. Theſe things have a way of working themſelves out.