Thursday, May 2, 2013


When I was in elementary school, our report cards included a grade for penmanship. Of all the subjects, penmanship was generally my weakest. In an age when elegant handwriting was valued and cultivated, I had what one relative described as "an immature handwriting."The one main point in its favor was that I tended to write relatively large letters, which whatever their level of maturity are generally easier to decipher than smaller ones. In college, grad school, and again later in seminary, I had to take notes. (Writing clealry beats printing for taking notes, although I suppose once could argue that shorthand would be even better!) As a teacher I wrote comments on students' papers. Now, however, I hardly ever write anything other than my signature. An occasional scribbled note to myself and an occasional carefully written note on a greeting card are about the extent of my need for penmanship skills today. 
I was, however, amazed to learn that "cursive writing," as it is technically called, is less and less required in schools or even taught. When I get greeting cards from my younger relatives, they are invariably printed. The sentiments expressed are just as welcome, but there does seem to be something lacking in a printed note. It might as well be typed on a computer! But does it really matter? 
Yesterday's New York Times hosted an interesting debate on the topic. A USC Education professor argues against mandating the teaching of cursive. "Cursive should be allowed to die. In fact, it's already dying, despite having been taught for decades. Very small proportions of adults use cursive for their day-to-day writing. ... Additionally, there is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching." At the other extreme, a University archivist notes the relative permanence  (and attractiveness) of traditional letters as opposed to such transient phenomena as email and argues "Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country and should continue to be taught; not just for the sake of tradition, but also to preserve the history of our nation."
That latter argument resonates with me emotionally. Yet, as we all know, with new things constantly being added to the curriculum, other things have to go, and so it behooves advocates to be able to advance practical as well as esthetic arguments!
The other two participants in the debate the more middle-of-the road positions. On the anti-cursive side, a handwriting expert argues: "Handwriting matters, but not cursive. The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes -- even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?" Finally, for the defense, an Occupational Therapist makes the case for cursive's benefits beyond actual writing. She contends: "Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing. As a result, the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation."

Now I really would like to believe that. In other words, as is so often the case with competing claims, I want to believe that the "facts" support my intuitions.In this case, I want to believe the occupaitonal therapist's claims because they buttress the argument of the archivist! On the other hand, given the realities of the way we actually communicate today, I don't think one could justify givign penmanship anythign liek the emphasis it used to get - nor do I care to subject future generations to the stigma I had to endure for having "an immature handwriting." But (much as I would like every school child to learn to conjugate Laitn verbs even absent any expectaiton of ever much using them), I would like to hope schools will continue to expose future generations to the skill of handwriting - and th epleasures of penmanship.

For the full text of the debate in yesterday's New Yoirk Times,
go to ://

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