02 November 2012

The Death of Cursive Writing

There are statistics and reports I could cite, but I am not going to. But, just look around. How many people write in cursive?

From School to a Second Attempt

I learned cursive in school. I started in an early grade, I forget which, and I wrote in cursive for most of my school time and a little after. I wrote very fast, and ready it very little. This is a good thing, because my handwriting was (and is) very hard to read. As an adult in school, I stopped taking notes at all because throughout my time in school, I took notes, but never actually consulted them because I never needed to. The act of taking notes was possibly a form of reinforcement and it was sufficient for me or perhaps even unnecessary.

In the first years of schooling, I learned to write in block letters and then after learning that, we immediately went to cursive in the next grade. In middle school, we had a typing class (using what I now recognise as IBM Selectrics) which emphasized proper typing and touch typing, but we never had access to the typewriters outside of class and the class's drills. It did very little to teach us the skill of touch typing except in theory. Whereas we were expected to write with pens (pencils, but I strongly preferred pens because they had more fine tips and did not smudge) on nearly all occasions. One would think such frequent practice would lead to mastery of the skill. After high school, I eventually bought my first computer and mastered touch typing in quite a short time because I stuck to the principles I had learned in that typing class and I like to do things properly. After that, I stuck to the keyboard in all things and gave up writing in cursive because the times I wrote with a pen did not require speed but legibility.

I hear now that many schools have given up cursive to focus on more important skills. Many bemoan this. I wonder why? Yes, we learned cursive, but the purpose of cursive was not to be graceful writing, but to compensate for the deficiencies of pens. All writing systems have abbreviated quick forms. Ancient Egyptians had cursive hieroglyphs. The Chinese had and have cursive characters. Even Arabic has shorter forms. The Romans had unjoined cursive forms as well as the Roman forms we know and use now. And of course all the languages which use the Latin script have cursive forms. Why? Because we needed a way to write quickly and still have some sort of legibility. For publication, humans have stuck to the more distinct and legible forms. Cursive is essentially a shortcut for using pens without having to resort to shorthand systems.

Writing with a pen is uncomfortable for me. I thought it was due to improper training and practice. After adulthood, I tried to relearn cursive so I could at least use it well and comfortably. But I could not learn. In fact, it was very uncomfortable (nearly painful) and frustrating. I tried calligraphy, relearning cursive, and relearning another cursive script distinct from what I had learned previously. I could do it, but I could not do it fluently. I was essentially painstakingly drawing the forms, which defeated the purpose of writing. Why could I not use this skill even with deliberate effort? I could learn Dvorak to touch type within hours and have retained the skill with no practice (because I have not reached the high speed to which I am accustomed, I rarely use Dvorak, but when I do, my speed goes up slightly, so I'm sure if I put the effort into using it for longer periods, my speed would improve much faster, but that is actually hard, especially since I write productively).

Enter Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is like dyslexia, but for the writing. Specifically, it is a difference in the nervous system which is otherwise unnoticed until a specific action is needed. The act of reading and the act of writing is not something that is biologically important. For most of history and in most societies, it would not have been necessary. In our modern age, far removed from the natural condition of humanity, many things are manifest which would not have otherwise been noticed. Dysgraphia, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, many personality disorders, and the like are all disorders because they cause hardship in the lives of people who have them. Dealing with innate conditions like that is difficult. Does one use drugs or surgery to "fix" what is essentially different and not broken? Does one accomodate them? To what degree is a person who is significantly different have to learn to deal with others versus others having to deal with people who are different?

Those are all questions which are important, but the focus here is cursive writing. We teach it to people who are undeveloped...people who do not have the fine motor skills for using it. Furthermore, it is a measure of intelligence. This is not official, but it is evident that teachers and people rate people with neat handwriting as being more intelligent and given that many tests involve writing, this is unfair. If we are going to have an institutional unfairness like that, we should go by something a little more biologically significant, such as facial symmetry or something. Still unfair, but at least it has some value.

So, for those bemoaning the antiquated skill of cursive writing, does your desire to preserve it include indoctrination of young people, discomfort for many, and lack of utility, and most importantly, to the detriment of the skill of touch typing and reading and writing? We could have classrooms full of people reading and writing without having to worry about the primitive act of scratching a stick on paper, but no, we have people doing drills writing cursive forms which end up becoming butchered in signatures and everything else is "please print".


  1. This is interesting. I learned in school as well, and took up printing instead in high school. When I started learning Morse Code, I read "The Art &Skill of Radio-Telegraphy" by William G. Pierpont N0HFF and he encouraged the use of cursive for its speed advantages. I've found I copy better on a keyboard, hence my interest in typewriters.
    Another interesting thing: When I took the GRE last summer the "I accept the rules" statement had to be written out in cursive. I wonder how soon they will drop that, and replace it with what?

  2. Very interesting post. You bring out many good points. I for one do not see cursive as an obsolete skill that should not be taught though. I learned to write in the second grade. In 1str and the 1st half of the second grade we could only print. We had to use pencils. We had to use pencils mostly all the way thorough grade school. My friends and I could not wait until we could learn to write. I enjoyed and had good penmanship until college, when I started to scribble. Had I known short hand, something I could not learn in our backwards school, I believer I could have written faster and neater and still retained good penmanship.
    I learned to type in High School and like you only had access to a typewriter during class. I kept my notes and remembered the discipline to apply later in life and it was a big help to be able to touch type.
    Then I get into amateur radio. Many I knew copied by all upper case block letters. Then as notagain, I read the same book which encouraged writing vs. printing. Chuck Adams, K7QO, one of the fastest CW operators also states write, use cursive as it is much faster when copying high speed code. Printing u lifting one's hand from the paper, writing or cursive, does not. I hope to become proficient at copying code on the typewriter. Until then I scribble and try to improve by using a fountain pen. I have found a fountain pen easier to use than a pen or pencil and I can write neater.

    IMOH schools, and parents, should teach good penmanship -- print and cursive as well as short hand and typing or proper keyboarding. Perhaps with proper ergonomics and keyboard skills CTS will be reduced too.

  3. I do not see it as obsolete, it is just not as essential as the schooling system often presents it. Also, whenever a news report says a school district has ceased teaching it, a whole bunch of people get in an uproar. Education is precious and it should be carefully considered, especially for the foundational skills. They teach cursive often for the young people and demand it be used and discriminate against those who cannot do it well. Meanwhile, the time spent teaching undeveloped nervous systems a skill which has actually limited application in the earliest years of schooling, when they graduate as 18 year olds who hunt and peck and cannot express themselves in their native language well.

    Note, that is based on what people are taught in school. Many learn otherwise in spite of the system.

    I can touch type very fast. I can read and type other languages to various degrees (including Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Greek, Chinese, etc), and I am very literate and can express myself well with words. I however have very poor handwriting due to something I cannot control.

    Nobody really notices that though...the skill of cursive actually has very limited use. The only time I use it really is when I get a letter from my mother who now uses a cursive typewriter I gave her (an Olympia SM-7).

    I never write it (unless typing on my 5TE) too. So...what was the point of wasting so much time as a child to learn this skill? It should have been one class in 7th grade and typing should have been taught during those grades instead.

  4. It takes my turnips (i.e., college students) far too much time to write essay exams because they laboriously block print everything as though they are still in 2nd grade. The upshot is, they never have enough time to write decent answers to anything. Going back to cursive would sure be an advantage for them.

    1. Yes, but why stop there? Shorthand would be far faster as well.

      That is the issue: why waste time putting markings on paper when we have the technology to do things faster, far more accurate, and with far more flexibility, right (literally) at our fingertips?

      If they had learned how to type in school, they would have used that skill. How many stop using cursive when it is no longer required? Many, it seems. Learning one motor skill for a very select purpose is a waste of time. Cursive is only used in school situation at least, as far as people commented on this post. After school, we have "life", and typing is far more useful.

      And of course, reading is more useful yet. Being able to read quickly, accurately, and critically is a skill that should be applied more often.

    2. The purpose is to have certainty that the written material was produced by a specific individual and can be identified that way. Even poor handwriting has this trait. An electronic device can carry or be given an entry by the operator that is not their own. I can get into why shorthand wouldn't be useful this way if you want. It would be long-winded.
      For all that, I empathize. My own cursive is either painstakingly drawn or illegible squiggles, and I'm more likely to misplace letters in cursive. So, typewriters.

    3. That is either specific to school or signatures. Either way, it is hardly the basis for an entire writing system taught from the earliest ages.

  5. Notagain makes a good point, i.e., cursive identifies the author. Moreover, cursive is useful when a typewriter or computer isn't available. I think the discussion assumes a lot about the function of writing, which is varied. I certainly don't want to do my taxes by manually filling out forms with a pen or pencil. But I obviously can't make an entry into a nice, leather-bound journal with a typewriter or computer, and I might prefer a handsome leather volume on my shelf to a cold digital file, or single sheets filed in a drawer. Letters are also far more personal when handwritten (as fun as typing them may be to us typospherians). And what kind of girl wants to receive a love note created on a computer? It seems to me that each method of writing has its time and place. Whether one is better than the other depends on the application and the user's subjective preference.

  6. Makes me yearn for a few big chief tablets, or a stack of Levy Pants stationary...okay, that is a reference to Ignatius J. Reilly. (Confederacy of Dunces)

    My son has dysgraphia and it is very difficult for him to get his thoughts down on paper. The teachers have problems trying to read anything he writes by hand. He is approved for a laptop at school, but won't use it.

    As far as the handwriting goes, there's also a lack of effort in composition. The students in school are even turning in work using text talk. The shortcuts used when texting messages to each other. Sad indeed.

    1. Maybe he could try another way of writing or recording his thoughts.

      Actually, as I have addressed in another post, nothing changes over time. People are people. The "students in school" are people, human beings, compelled by the state to attend a rather unproductive school driven by standardized tests and teachers' unions, and of course there is going to be slacking in some sense.

      There is nothing really good coming out of schools because the schools are not focused on that. The schools could focus on teaching, but they are not. After one learns how to read, then one is generally left parroting the school policy, and anything learned is something one sought to learn by oneself.

      Shortcuts in writing are actually universal throughout time and language. In fact, in many ways, medieval "text speak" was worse. Standard spelling is actually a relatively modern thing as well.

      That is one thing historical knowledge teaches...there were no good old days. Everything that is, was before.