Lea Wait, here, and confessing. My handwriting is neither elegant nor beautiful, nor, according to many who’ve attempted to read it over the years, easy to decipher. (Future biographers, beware!) One of my grandchildren once watched me taking notes for a book and proceeded to show me that she, too, could “scribble.” She was using a crayon…
So perhaps I am not the best candidate to climb on this particular podium. But, since I will also confess to being quite stubborn when I’m convinced about the truth of some matter, I’m going to anyway.
I believe every student in school today should not only learn to print words, but also to write them in classic, cursive script.
If you haven’t had any close contact with students in grades 3-5 recently, perhaps you’re unaware that there is an increasing generation of American young people who cannot read or write in cursive. While schools will say that they “teach cursive,” when questioned teachers will admit they do so for perhaps 15 minutes “when we can fit it in the schedule.” (Some will openly admit they “just don’t have time anymore” and many don’t attempt to teach it at all.)
My experience, as an author who’s spoken at schools in 11 states over the past few years, and who signs books (in cursive) for young people throughout the country, is that very, very few children today are learning to write anything but perhaps their own names in cursive. Even fewer are learning to decode the mysteries of other people’s handwriting.
And this distresses me.
Not because I have fond memories of being given my very first “real ink” pen in fourth grade and going home with ink-stained fingers (just like Jo in my favorite book, Little Women) until I ‘d mastered the fountain pen. Although I do. Not because I remember being drilled in The Palmer Method and writing pages of correctly proportioned Js and Ts and Ws. Not (really!) because I’m an old fuddy-duddy who believes the old methods are better. Although, in this case, I do.
It distresses me because, contrary to what many young people think today, keyboarding (not even typing – they don’t learn that either) can never replace a working knowledge of script.
Yes, I believe it is faster for taking notes. And more beautiful for personal letters. (Today is Valentine’s Day. Is an email from your beloved really as meaningful as a hand-written love letter or poem?) And more distinguished for a signature on a document. But, even more than that. Being able to communicate in cursive is the key to all that has gone before us. The original words and wisdom of everyone in Western culture from the parents and grandparents of students today to the philosophers and authors and scientists and historians and artists of centuries past are all written in cursive.
Because that was how they wrote.
Too often I’ve inscribed a book to a teenager and had that young person come back to me and ask, “What did you write?” At first I assumed they couldn’t read my handwriting. My handwriting was not the clearest. So I started writing very neatly. Painfully so, in my eyes. Still, I was asked to interpret – or I saw students asking their parents to read my words. The parents had no trouble doing so.
That was when I realized: the students couldn’t read script. To them, it was another language.
In another generation, will learning to read script be a lost skill, only studied by those who wish to do graduate work requiring primary research?
In Korea, in the 15th century, King Sejong realized that only male aristocrats who had the time to learn could read and write the complicated Chinese characters, Hanja, required to write Korean. As a result, most Koreans were illiterate. The king, a very wise man far ahead of his time, called many scholars together and charged them to study both western and eastern languages, and design a new Korean language: a written language that would be accessible to all. It is the only time in history such a thing was done. And it was successful. Today Korea uses Hangul: an alphabet. All read and write it.
If a Korean scholar wishes to study the Korea of the past, he or she must learn the old language: Hanja. Few do.
Someday, will our primary sources be accessible only to those who learn to read that “other language:” cursive? Will such skill be a mark of an intellectual? An ability to write in cursive the mark of a high social class?
Yes, our children have many things to learn today. But surely, the art of writing is not something we should leave behind without even a discussion. Or it may be only a few years before our grandchildren will be unable to read the words of the original Declaration of Independence.
And that will be a sad day.