Is the keyboard mightier than the pen? Apparently so. Forty-two states no longer require cursive writing in their curriculum, though many schools still introduce cursive in a manner that’s well, cursory.
Perfect Palmer Penmanship
Good riddance, say those for whom poor penmanship was the bane of their grade school years (especially boys). It was for them that a method called Handwriting Without Tears was developed. When even little kids learn to write on a keyboards, briskly practical people say, it’s maudlin to mourn the demise of cursive, which is going the way of the fountain pen, cuneiform and hieroglyphics. As Douglas Adams once wrote, “Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”
Cuneiform, written on clay with a reed for a stylus
Traditionalists fear, though, that when the death bell tolls for cursive, more than loops and flourishes (and the dotting of Is with hearts by the young female of the species) is lost. It can be argued that cursive hones fine motor skills, improves ideation and expression, teaches letters and shapes, enhances memory, reveals personality (remember the dubious “science” of handwriting analysis?) and links us to the past.
How I quaked in my white pleather go-go boots in 8th grade when Miss Ryerson, she of the hot dragon breath and dandruff collar, picked up one of my papers with its curlicued capitals, exaggerated slant, floaters (letters that drifted above the line) and sinkers (below). Her mission was to stamp out all evidence of individuality in handwriting, and it was really rather thrilling when her beady eyes bored into yours – at least in the unrelieved tedium of school, your abject, scalp-tingling terror reminded you that you were still alive. She believed that sloppy handwriting indicates sloppy thinking, and I hate to admit it, but I’ve come to agree. At the beginning of the semester you were allowed three erasures per paper, and at the end, “Zero!,” as she proclaimed with fanatical zeal.
Today, many teens and twentysomethings have a hard time deciphering cursive, which means that reading historic documents – or even their grandparents’ letters – is difficult. If you’re like me, you treasure the instant intimacy conferred by coming upon a recipe, letter, or receipt with your late loved ones’ script on it. Letters from my dad on onion skin paper have writing as gangly as he was, its controlled haste evidence of twin inclinations toward perfectionism and speed.
When I want to put soul into writing, my first draft is longhand in black ink on yellow legal paper rather than keyboarded, and I swear the difference in the result is as marked as that between instant coffee and brewed. Yet, I envy writers who can compose brilliantly on a laptop. And I still chuckle at Truman Capote’s snotty dismissal of showboater Jack Kerouac’s legendary feat of typing his stream-of-consciousness travelogue On the Road on paper that he taped into a 120-foot scroll. “That’s not writing,” Capote sneered. “That’s typing.”
Of course, everything was new once, and cursive itself was developed to make handwriting faster by connecting letters to make a word all at once, avoiding blots because the quill didn’t have to be lifted from the page as often. Like many objects invention has rendered inefficient, the fountain pen and the typewriter have achieved what typewriter collector Richard Polt calls “the allure of the archaic.” Hence the popularity of Mont Blanc’s John Lennon Special Edition Fountain Pen, retailing for $1,000 (imagine!).
The Mont Blanc John Lennon Fountain Pen
Meanwhile hipsters have begun collecting and using typewriters. I love them, too, along with Anne Sexton’s poem in which she calls her typewriter “my church with an altar of keys always waiting.”
Poet Anne Sexton
In a clever infusion of the old into the new, there’s even an app through which you can handwrite words with a finger or stylus and see them transformed into the magic of print to be emailed or tweeted. Do you think it should be curtains for cursive? This post originally appeared in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa.