Not Teaching Cursive Writing a Disservice to Students

I ran across a recent item that cut me to the nib (pun intended). It seems that many schools no longer teach cursive writing. Many states have dropped it from their language arts core, the logic being that our keyboard society has made cursive writing a relic of the past. Many public school students now have no writing skills beyond printing, and some schools don’t even teach lower versus upper case printing–just block letters. (Catholic schools still demand cursive and good for them.)

A lot of my college students think it’s fine to rely on printing. They also think it’s fine to steal music. They’re wrong on both accounts. If you are an elementary school teacher, instruct your classes in cursive; if you’re a parent, don’t ask, demand that it be taught. Some of the things you read online–how ironic!–offer elegiac defenses of cursive writing. (Quite a few also spout the shortsighted party line that cursive is as archaic as vacuum tubes and print publications.) I suppose one could wax rhapsodic about creativity flowing down the barrel of a pen, links to our Western heritage, and developing motor skills, but there’s no need to go down those routes. A far more pragmatic argument is that cursive writing is, simply, a skill one needs to keep up in today’s fast-paced society.

My students swear to me that they can type far faster than they can “write,” by which they mean block-letter printing and that’s probably correct. They also use their electronic devices so frequently that they’ve come to expect there’s never a situation in which they won’t have one. That is, until the first time someone gives them a blue-book exam and tells them “No, you can’t type this on your laptop.” Many of my students cannot fill an eight-page bluebook in an hour, which means that their essays are superficial and they are graded accordingly. “Unfair!” they cry. I am roughly as sympathetic to that plea as math professors that tell their students they must do their own arithmetic rather than using a calculator. Are we being callous? I don’t think so.

In Logic 101 one learns that a syllogism with a flawed major premise yields illogic. In this case, the case against cursive rest on the assumption (major premise) that there are no longer situations in which one needs cursive. That’s simply false. The average accomplished typist does 60-80 words per minute (WPM). I can write faster than that even though I have a hand disability that slows me. Moreover, to hit 60 WPM, you need to know how to touch type, which is another skill that most students never acquire. I have observed students in lectures who simply can’t keep up on their keyboards. Some ask me to put my lecture notes on the Web, which I will not do. I happen to think that: (a) these things are my intellectual property, and (b) that a person with poor listening skills is ill equipped for the job market.   

One reason student are slow is physical. Just as a violin player can play faster than a cello player because they don’t have as much instrument to cover, so too can most people scribble on a piece of paper faster than they can go across a 12-18 inch keyboard (on which many students have to search for letters.)  Another reason is that we relate to screens differently. Put simply, a mind focused on a screen is less actively engaged with a detached speaker. (And this is before other temptations from the World of Wireless pops in one’s head. Try reading just one e-mail and see if you can refocus on a lecture.) Today’s students are very fast at retrieving information, but they are extremely slow when it comes to analyzing it, in part because huge chunks elude them, especially the connective tissue that relates bit of information to another. And heaven help them if their laptops run out of battery life in the middle of a class. You know what most of them do? Nothing! They simply sit there, stunned. The best students will tune in and hope to retain enough to transfer it to their computer once it’s recharged. Try that and tell me how well it works.

There are many circumstances in life where one has to jot down information in a hurry without the aid of an electronic helper–an employer calls someone into the office and gives details of an important assignment, a critic needs to take notes in a no-gadgets environment, verbal directions are given to someone who is lost, one is taking an exam that disallows computers as a potential cheating source (and this includes licensing exams for many professions as well as graduate school entrance exams), a therapist or doctor needs to focus on patients instead of a screen, a person wishes to send a note that is more personalized (sympathy cards, for example). Perhaps most important of all, if you really need to remember something, test subjects that write things cursively retain far more than those that print or type. (Typing surpasses only relying upon aural memory in psychological tests.) And, let’s face it; if you were an employer, would you hire someone who couldn’t write his or her own name?

One doesn’t have to be a Luddite or technophobe to defend cursive writing. Today’s world depends upon flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability. I won’t pretend that learning cursive writing is “fun.” I hated penmanship in grade school and my hand is indeed a poor one. I chuckle at those who defend cursive as an art form; no one will ever confuse my scrawl with art! But can we please can the if-it’s-not-fun-we-can’t-teach-it fluff of modern education? I didn’t like learning multiplication tables, conjugating verbs, or learning about syllables either, but I’m sure glad I swallowed the medicine. Do not let your kids get by without learning cursive; they will hate you now, but they’ll thank you later. 

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