Why Teach Students to Write in Cursive?

From a New York Times column by John McWhorter headlined “What’s the Point of Teaching Cursive?”:

It’s quaint to read how common it was in the late 1920s, when sound had just come to the movies, to assume it was just a fad. More than a few people thought films had been better without sound — that actors had been more expressive, that sound was intrusive upon the artistic illusion and so on.

I suspect that complaints these days that students are not learning cursive will look similar in a hundred years.

It seems as if students are learning cursive ever less. The generation of college students I now teach not only never knew the 20th century and think of CDs as quaint, but mostly they do not write in cursive. The idea behind this, at least implicitly, is that so much writing now takes place on the keyboard that cursive, designed for handwriting, is no longer essential. I remember one of my daughters coming home in second grade in 2016 and complaining that she couldn’t read one of her teachers’ comments because they were written in what she called “scrip,” seeming to process it as some exotic writing system like cuneiforms. And she indeed, while able to read it, does not write in it now.

Even as an “old soul” who values things about the past on various levels, I see nothing wrong with this.

I never even liked “scrip” — my mispronunciation was calling it “cursiff” for a good while — even though as a 1970s kid I was immersed in it early on. It always felt like being made to drive too fast. What was supposed to be more efficient by precluding the need to lift the pencil off the page always felt too prone to slips of the finger, to messiness that would make it hard for the reader to decode. Cursive always seemed a tad laborious to me.

I got used to it, but I had a history teacher in 10th grade who was especially good, and one day while taking notes as he lectured, I started writing in little capital letters because it was easier and allowed me to follow him more closely. For the first time, physical writing felt good to my hand and brain, and I never looked back.

For one, I no longer worried about the mess. Cursive’s nonstop flow encourages a certain, shall we say, freedom — one falls into abbreviative little habits, one flattens, one extends. It’s a short step from that to the notoriously opaque signatures of people like the founders and various presidents. Think of the father of our country “George Wafhapter” (take a look at his signature!); the four-term steward of the New Deal, “Franklin A. Gorsuch” (or something quite close!).

And besides, because so many cursive letters differ significantly from their printed equivalents, they entail a learning burden that would be better spent on other, more useful tasks. The cursive capital G, for instance, is a lovely thing, but really? Given that our writing system already makes kids learn the difference between H and h, B and b, G and g, E and e, and so on, why must we saddle them with even more variations like the cursive capital I and S?

Many argue that writing in cursive encourages memorization, but it is unclear whether it is cursive specifically or handwriting itself that lends this benefit. I understand that handwriting imprints the memory better — I notice it even in adulthood — but I am skeptical that there is a reason the handwriting is better done in cursive. Especially given that other problem, of cursive’s tendency toward mess — the two Presidents Bush were, epigraphically, Messrs. Cug Binch and Gzw Bul.

I am similarly unmoved by the argument that not learning cursive will leave old documents written in it unavailable to future readers to any significant degree. A vast majority of documents written in cursive that most people will ever need to consult have long been transliterated into print, and this includes a great many documents less consulted. As a scholar who occasionally needs to dip into obscure medieval manuscripts, I would need only one hand to count the number of times the handwriting was tough and there was no print version available somewhere in a library or online to consult.

Of course, this would not be the case for hard-core scholars of antiquity, and other people would occasionally run up against handwritten sources that presented a challenge. But niche scholarship and the blue-moon occasion do not justify a universal policy of childhood education. Rather, decoding “scrip” should become a skill imparted to aspiring specialists. There are already smart apps that decode cursive writing for the curious, perhaps not perfectly but well enough to serve general purposes.

By my lights, it is about as important for modern kids to learn cursive as it is for them to know their Roman numerals. The latter are kind of fun, and you have to know them to … well, for me they were for reading what the year was on “Looney Tunes” opening credits, and I guess one might want to be able to know what year a building was constructed without having to ask someone. But just as those aren’t enough to impose learning Roman numerals on all schoolchildren, cursive’s time is up, now that all people will spend so much less time writing by hand.

Is it possible that part of the reason many don’t want to see the eclipse of cursive is that it’s pretty? I get that. But so were Gilded Age ball gowns and fondue, and yet here we are. Or LP record jackets. Despite retaining about 150 LPs today out of obstinate nostalgia, I vastly preferred CDs to the scratchable, space-hogging things that LPs were, with their limit of about 25 minutes a side if you wanted good sound all the way, and wearing down after too many plays. I miss the artwork on the big cardboard square packages, but not so much as to miss the general inconveniences.

I march unconcerned, then, into the new world of no “scrip.” My children will prefer writing on keyboards, as I myself long have. I hope that the time once devoted to teaching cursive can now be diverted to teaching students about the content of their writing rather than its physical form. In a nutshell, handwritten English, to the extent that we need it, should simply parallel printed letters.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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