Make your Mark

simpsons_cursive

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.

7 comments on “Make your Mark

  1. Thank you, Seth, for taking another crack at de-pedestaling the parchment copy so revered they rolled it up and hid it for ~150 years. The original is in nice clean print right next to it at the National Archives! Much more readable 237 years later!

  2. I asked about the necessity of cursive on Twitter after reading this post this morning. Getting both sides. I don’t know how many of them actually clicked the link, but hey.

  3. Susan Garfinkel says:

    You may be interested in a Webcast by a Library of Congress curator, Rob Shields, about the early distribution of the Declaration of Independence. From the beginning, the Declaration existed in print–the Dunlap broadside (prepared the evening of July 4)–and was reproduced more widely in newspapers of the day, while the engrossed copy in “handwriting” didn’t yet exist until sometime in August.

    See http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/declaration.html

  4. bill b says:

    I’d like the conversation to be more nuanced than a binary existence or absence of cursive. At the very least, the existence has three levels that take increasing levels of educational investment to reach. First is the ability to read it. This seems most useful and it’s very easy. Second is the ability to read and write it. This is takes a good bit more time, and maybe it doesn’t belong high on the priority list. Finally is the ability to write beautifully, as was done 100 years ago. Of course, this isn’t necessary.

  5. kategladstone says:

    Handwriting matters … But does cursive matter?
    Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters 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. (Citations appear below.)

    Often, cursive programs and teachers strongly discourage such practices. Students learning cursive are taught to join all letters, and to use different shapes for cursive versus printed letters. (These requirements do not align with the research findings above.)

    When following the rules doesn’t work as well as breaking them, it’s time to re-write and upgrade the rules. The discontinuance of cursive offers a great opportunity to teach some better-functioning form of handwriting that is actually closer to what the fastest, clearest handwriters do anyway. (There are indeed textbooks and curricula teaching handwriting this way. Cursive and printing are not the only choices.)

    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.

    (In other words, we could simply teach kids to _read_ old-fashioned handwriting and save the year-and-a-half that are expected to be enough for teaching them to _write_ that way too … not to mention the actually longer time it takes to teach someone to perform such writing _well_.)

    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.)

    CITATIONS:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub.
    THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY.
    1998: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    and

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer.
    DEVELOPMENT OF HANDWRITING SPEED AND LEGIBILITY IN GRADES 1-9.
    1998: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    (NOTE: there are actually handwriting programs that teach this way.
    Shouldn’t there be more of them?)

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

  6. Richard Burley says:

    I write almost all my notes by hand, but I print. I use a few ligatures, such as a “th” ligature and “ar”/”er”/”or” ligatures, I connect lower-case “e” to whatever follows for the most part, but I’d hardly call that cursive. In fact, as a 30-year-old medievalist, I find that I have an easier time reading insular minuscule than whatever the declaration of independence is written in. But that’s the point: if we want students to be able to read historical documents, we should teach them paleography. I don’t know how to write in insular minuscule, but that doesn’t matter any more than the fact that I don’t know how to write in cursive — I’ll never need to do either.

    • kategladstone says:

      May I quote you, Richard, when this issue is discussed & someone invokes the Declaration or the Constitution? If you’ll accept being quoted, please e-mail me to let me know … and include a link to your web-site, so I can put that link on some relevant area of my own site at http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

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