Opinion | What’s at stake when we lose the ability to write in cursive?

Here’s a simple exercise. Take out a pen, and a sheet of paper, and write out something—your name, your favorite band, the name of the closest restaurant—in cursive. How’d you do? I’ll bet it wasn’t easy. I tried to write the word “abstract” in cursive script the other day. I’d just met Joe Monihan, this week’s letter writer, and I wanted to see whether I still had the muscle memory from ages ago, when I still wrote in cursive. It had been a long time. The “r” was a wave, neither “t” matched, and the less said about “b” the better.

Here’s a simple exercise. Take out a pen, and a sheet of paper, and write out something—your name, your favorite band, the name of the closest restaurant—in cursive.

How’d you do? I’ll bet it wasn’t easy.

I tried to write the word “abstract” in cursive script the other day. I’d just met Joe Monihan, this week’s letter writer, and I wanted to see whether I still had the muscle memory from ages ago, when I still wrote in cursive. It had been a long time. The “r” was a wave, neither “t” matched, and the less said about “b” the better.

Mr. Monihan first stopped by to share his concerns over this two weeks ago. He’d read about the decline of cursive instruction in a national story, and had shared his concerns with the Snoqualmie Valley School Board.

In an age when everybody is writing less and typing more, Joe’s argument is that schools should stress the teaching of cursive writing, the flowing script that developed long, long ago for use with the pen.

As I listened to Joe make his case, I came to see his point. All around us, technology seems on the march. It’s given us so much, but it’s also taken.  I’m not arguing that we should start swapping cars for carriages, or ban the e-book and chop down more trees. What I do sense is that the pace of change seems to be speeding up. And the very physical act of literacy is at stake as we rely more and more, at a younger age, on technological crutches.

Joe’s fighting a heavy current here. Schools embrace technology like handheld computers because it works: New tech draws in young minds in ways that old techniques sometimes do not.

We had a mixed reaction to cursive in our Question of the Week poll last week. In case you missed it, one teen said we don’t need it anymore. One boy said cursive is good for formal things; another student admitted that it should be used, but isn’t because students aren’t always good at it. And one girl, Danielle Burns (a great Wildcat golfer, by the way), hit the nail on the head when she replied that cursive is more personal, painstaking. She loves getting hand-written letters.

I still remember learning cursive in third grade. There was pride in the knowledge that us youngsters were mastering arcane skills of the adult world, a different kind of literacy, more ornate, more artistic. We didn’t spend long on it; I remember struggling to make the curlicues of capital Z. To this day, I can’t do it. And almost all the other letters have faded. Perhaps the skill is still there, but it’s latent, and only practice and real effort will bring it back.

With businesses, media and school districts being asked to communicate in new ways with citizens, there’s always that pressure to jump to the next new device or method. Now, I love Facebook, but it’s so easy to be insulated in your own personal bubble of information and opinion. Tech is a tool, but it’s no replacer of the real, whether that be discussion, variety of sources, or the simple act of reading and writing in a real, physical book.

And besides, what happens to all that information or technique if the power goes out?

There’s only so much that can really be done in education about cursive. But broadly speaking, there are probably many ways educators and families can embrace literacy and writing, ensuring that technology like smart-phones and spell check remain tools, not crutches, and that script doesn’t wind up taught only in art class. Pick up a pen and write, yourself. Teach the kids to write.

Joe puts it a lot simpler than I do: Use it or lose it.

 


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