Behind the curve

An issue that keeps popping up, both on the internet and in conversation, is something that 50 years ago was no issue at all. It is, should cursive writing be taught in our schools?

Whether the response is a yea or nay seems to break down by age: Older peeps think it bloody well should be taught; younger folks think it’s impractical and thus a waste of time and effort.

And what do I think about it?

Glad you asked.

Ultimately, if practicality is the sole criterion, cursive writing died in 1878, with the invention of the typewriter. And it got buried by the invention of the computer.

Everything we read and have read for the last few hundred years has been printed. Everything we write now is on a computer, and anything most of us write by hand is is printed as well. As for personal letters, which were traditionally written in cursive? Fergit ’em, since they’re about as common as Siamese triplets.

So if cursive isn’t read or written anymore, teaching it to young people serves no practical purpose. But guess what? Sometimes, practicality isn’t the best measure of worth.

Let’s get real. How practical is watching TV four hours a day? Or spending four hours on social media? Or spending or receiving 100 texts a day? Or texting even once while driving your car?

Are drinking soda and eating fast food practical? Is racking up a buttload of credit card debt practical?

Not only are those things impractical, they can be downright destructive. Yet we do them so much, they’ve replaced baseball as the national pastime.

So if we gleefully accept all sorts of impractical things as “acceptable,” if not “normal,” then I don’t believe accepting one more is any big deal — especially if that “one more” is teaching cursive.

But I don’t favor making kids learn cursive simply because it’s no worse than a bunch of other things. I think it has many benefits.

Making some points …

For one thing, it’s a skill. And I’m of the notion — as old-fashioned as it is — that it’s good to learn new skills, especially handcraft skills, which good penmanship certainly is. By the time they’re still in single digits, kids today have mastered keyboards and all sorts of computer skills — we all know that. But with hands-on crafts they seem to be sorely lacking. Which to me is a tragedy, for several reasons.

First, learning old-school crafts, even perfunctorily, puts us in touch with our predecessors. Doing what they did gives us some kind of understanding of what they did and who they were, and thus might give young people an appreciation for some part of their parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’, etc., lives. I think this lack of connection with their ancestors is sadly lacking among our young people today.

Related to that is an argument I hear bruited about: If you can read cursive, you can read our historical documents. Beyond that, forget the Constitution and Declaration of Independence; you could read the any correspondence your family saved and get some insights into who those living, breathing people were, beyond their mere images frozen in an old photo.

Another thing: Printing is made up of only straight lines and either 90- or 45-degree angles. Cursive, of course, requires the writer to be able to form all sorts of different lines, angles and curves. Yeah, so what use is that? Well, it helps people draw better, since drawing is nothing but lines on paper and cursive will teach you how to make many more different lines than printing. And since drawing is something kids love to do, so why not help them out with it?

Along the same lines — pun intended — cursive writing is an art. If you look into it, there are dozens of very fancy-shmancy cursive scripts — whole books of them in fact. So if someone wanted to find THE perfect script to write, they’d have a myriad of choices — all of them real beauts. But beyond all the fancy scripts and calligraphy (literally translates from Greek, “beautiful writing”), simple cursive writing, done well, is a delight to look at. Plus, like all arts, even if people are writing the same script, they do so in their own way. It puts your personal stamp on your lettering, making it as individualistic as you, yourself. And don’t we all like to be considered individuals?

And a couple more points …

If you learn to write cursive, you may take it one step further and indulge yourself in one of the great joys of the literate — a fountain pen. Yeah, I know it sounds about as old-fashioned and hopelessly square as parting your hair in the middle and wearing a monocle, but fountain pens are hardly just a fashion statement. No matter what you’re writing, if you do it with a fountain pen, it’s a joy. They’re smooth, make precise lines and never skip. I write all my columns’ first drafts by hand, with a fountain pen. And as much work as it might be to think up a column, it’s a delight to do the actual writing with my fountain pen.

And think of the other advantages of a fountain pen. Good ones are relatively inexpensive, and they’re not going to get tossed in the landfill — or even worse, on the street or in the grass. If you take care of them (that is, don’t use them as screwdrivers or pry bars), they can last a lifetime, literally. They come in a big variety of nib widths and points, and you can find any color ink your little heart desires. And you don’t have to go all over hell’s half acre to find a good selection, since the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid has one. If you want one they don’t have in stock, they’ll order it for you. Tell ’em the Dope sent ya …

A final argument for teaching cursive: It’s easy to learn. Check it out — almost all the letters are the same as their printing equivalent, with a little tweak and twist here and there. Yeah, sure, you wanna learn Spencerian script, it might turn your head crosswise, but a modern cursive font is identical to print letters, except for Q, G and S.

When I said it’s easy to learn, I meant just that. But I didn’t say it was easy to perfect: When it comes to making your penmanship consistently well-formed, well-spaced and beautiful to look at, it’ll take a bunch of work. But what, other than falling off a log or being a performance artist, doesn’t take work.

Ultimately, people who learn to write cursive well have a lot to show for themselves — in more ways than one.


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