Cursive. Script. Fancy lettering. Whatever you call it, you probably don’t, because after 3rd Grade in the United States no one makes you use it. Penmanship is pretty undervalued in American society – I remember one kid in my middle school had SUCH abominable handwriting the school decided he was a total lost cause and he was given special permission to type his statewide test essays on a computer. Meanwhile, the rest of us who were not dexterity-challenged practically lost fine motor skills handwriting essay upon essay during the grueling testing days in a clammy gym in mid-June. That kid probably got to sit in an air-conditioned computer room too. Curses!
Liberals and conservatives alike are, and perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch, uniting over the depraved state of ghastly American penmanship. Both ends of the spectrum are taking it to the next level with legislation passing in several states making cursive instruction mandatory in schools. While the goal is the same – keep cursive alive! – the motivation behind this push to keep swirly letters alive differs from Left to Right.
While reading the article, off the bat it seemed sort of silly that this is considered a pertinent issue as people have no healthcare, guns go off everyday in this country, and Syria is gassing its own citizens. But as I wrote this entry, I realized I have given much more thought to penmanship throughout my own life than I had thought. While the demise of cursive and penmanship nowhere near as calamitous as these situations, handwriting is does still have implications on our society and how we operate. To this day we still rely on people’s ability to write by hand. Even typeface starts out on paper.
In the NY Mag article, an education-policy expert who supports a shift away from cursive instruction discusses the kinds of hate mail he receives from staunch cursive-ists: “When I get hate mail — hate e-mail — about cursive, it’s mostly from conservatives… The hate mail I get from liberals is that we’ve decimated the curriculum and there’s no more beauty in schooling. And cursive is one of those beautiful skills that allow you to read notes from your grandmother. The argument you get from conservatives is more ‘How are we going to be able to read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence?’”
Speaking of reading notes from Grandma and youth falling out of touch with centuries-old practices like cursive and sending mail by post, here is a letter that my brother, Nicholas, tried to send to my Grandma. It kept getting sent back, causing Nick to go on a long tirade about the proposed benefits of privatizing the postal service, government, anarchy, etc before I pointed out that he had, in fact, addressed it to himself.
While its easy to laugh off Conservatives’ abilities to somehow find a way to relate cursive to upholding ‘Murica, the article does describe quote Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, as explaining, “Penmanship education is about following instructions to reproduce standardized models…It stands in sharp contrast to the expression of individuality.”
I found this statement interesting since one of the first things I noticed socialist-leaning countries like Belgium and France as well as Senegal (a former French colony whose school system Senegal’s is based off of), was a prevalence of cursive. Kids in class scribbled down notes in lettres attachés while waiters jotted down my order in quick cursive. In Belgium and France, just by looking at something written in cursive or just by hand, I had a harder time discerning if it was written by a boy or a girl. Maybe in America, an individualist society where we are encouraged to push the box, handwriting is seen more as an expression of self than in other countries where more uniform values are valued.
Boys, in my experience, tend to have weird, shaky handwriting, at best described as a sort of polished chicken scratch while American girls spend hours deciding on whether to circle or dot their lower-case i’s, make Times New Roman a’s or the regular one, cross their z’s or leave them free. This is all in print. And let’s not forget the hours spent doodling bubble letters or swirly letters or the most important doodle of 4th Grade:
In high school I interned in a 1st Grade class at the French-American School. I was blown away by the handwriting and penmanship of these six-year-olds, both boys and girls. When I was six, my dad once remarked that my lowercase r’s looked like umbrellas because I stretched the right-side out so far it sheltered all the ensuing letters. I was mortified. When these little Frenchies made a mistake in their cursive, they didn’t just scratch it out and continue on – they used White Out on a single lowercase f! For something they weren’t even going to hand in! I was floored. College students in Belgium seemed to carry on this tradition of White Out and neatness that began for them at an early age. While was lucky to have a pen floating around the bottom of my backpack, Belgian students still carried little pencil cases or boxes filled with White Out, rulers, and the like (the rulers were for making lines if writing on plain paper so nothing came out slanted. I know!?!)
The article mentions that key witness in the Trayvon Martin case, Rachel Jeantel, couldn’t read cursive, and this actually helped contribute to her portrayal as an “emblematic star of an ill-educated generation raised on TV and pop culture, disrespectful of their elders, marginally literate and incapable of exercising the duties of responsible citizenship.” Youch!
Is this fair though? There were many other factors that contributed to Ms. Jeantel’s less-than-favorable image in the press, but in this day and age, but should the fact that she can’t read script play into this? How important is it really in daily life to read or use cursive, really? So much is typed or texted or quickly scrawled in print. With many states passing new, tougher core curriculum standards and schools dropping art and music classes to make room for more testing preparation, where and when are children supposed to be educated in the art of fine handwriting?
Unlike Ms. Jeantel, I can read script, but I do feel her – Cursive, if long ago abandoned for print, can be intimidating. After hours spent in doodling my own John Hancock on various margins of loose-leaf paper, I am able to scrawl my signature quickly and rather legibly on a receipt while impatient people stand behind me in line tapping their foot or jiggling their leg like, “C’mon c’mon c’monnnnnn!”
But aside from signature signing I would never resort to cursive to write anything fast – my hand fumbles as I try to make a lower-case b which comes out like an l and sometimes my s‘s look like o‘s. I always avoid starting sentences with a capital Q because it looks like an elongated 2 and it just looks off to have u follow 2 even if it is in fact really a Q. All in all, I feel left-handed when I write freely in cursive.
So yes, American schools have little time for such trivial subjects like cursive. But you know what? I support cursive legislation. Having nice handwriting gives you a leg up in the world – no one wants to look at anything that looks like a 5-year-old wrote it. Having good penmanship shows effort, time, neatness, and maturity. And it is important to be able to read Grandma’s letters because you probably don’t call her enough, you jerk.
Time magazine’s recent cover really sums up America these days.
So what do I say? Teach ‘em cursive. Sit ‘em down, stick a pen in their hands and make them think about about how the power of the pen will keep this goddamn nation together and respect your elders and get off your phone.