A solution to the demise of cursive
In case you hadn’t noticed, the world has changed. That, according to Darren J. Root, superintendent of the Auburn public schools, in a recent op-ed for the SJ-R. Superintendent Root noted that students no longer pass notes in class; they text instead, or Snapchat, or whatever. Nor do they write notes in class, he said, but rather use computers or tablets or, I don’t know, some academic emojis.
Root was trying to persuade lawmakers to uphold Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of legislation to require public schools to teach one unit of cursive writing before students exit fifth grade. Lawmakers disagreed, and the new mandate is now state law.
The crux of Root’s argument was that the legislature should quit trying to be a super school board, handing down curricular commandments without regard to whether they are feasible, affordable or even desirable. He probably has a point, but he did not argue that learning cursive writing is useless, and indeed it is a part of his own school district’s curriculum. “Nobody disagrees that cursive writing has value,” he wrote.
So, maybe he is the one missing the point. If cursive writing has sufficient value to be a requirement in Auburn, why should students in the district next door be deprived of the skill?
As with many debates of public policy, the real issue gets lost in the state-mandate vs. local-control ping-pong. The real issue: Is learning to write cursively worth it?
There are two schools of thought:
1. Handwriting is obsolete. The cellphone is now more ubiquitous than pen and paper. For virtually any purpose, your phone can make an audio recording, a video recording, take a screenshot, send a text, an email, post a comment or type (or scribble) notes on a vast variety of apps. Cursive writing is a tool not a skill, and technology has made this particular tool as useless as facts in the White House.
2. Handwriting has a valuable connection to our past and, in fact, is a superior method for recording information. This school emphasizes tradition and views our common experience of learning to write longhand as a reflection of shared values, and even virtues. Studies show that teachers have some sort of built-in bias favoring students with beautiful penmanship, regarding them as smarter.
This strikes me as ridiculous, except for the fact that research has also found that writing notes, as opposed to typing them, is a better approach to absorbing, digesting and remembering information and ideas. There is also, in elementary school, the advantage of strengthening fine motor skills that comes with each loop-de-loop flowing from pen or pencil.
Whenever confronted with competing schools of thought, I typically fall back on personal experience. First, I have lovely penmanship, and I can feel Mrs. Philo smiling down from third grade heaven every time I wield pen to paper.
Second, as a journalist for over 20 years, note-taking was the oxygen of my trade. I’m not a fast writer, so I developed tricks to help me keep up, much like the shorthand everybody now uses in texts and such (does anyone know what “iamao” means?). Senator Dick Durbin owns the trophy for being the hardest person to take notes from because he talks in paragraphs, all of what he says seems important, and his transitions from one topic to another are so smooth and natural that it’s like listening to movements in a Beethoven concerto – you never know when to start clapping. At the other extreme is former Sangamon County GOP chairman Irv Smith; I’ve had ink pens dry up waiting for him to finish a sentence.
Third, I have heard the call of technological innovation, and I have answered. I upgrade my iPhone more frequently than my wardrobe. I email, I text, I post, reply, tweet, and retweet. If I’m not exactly a technophile, I’m at least standing in the right line.
But I’m really not very good at it. The only screen shots I’ve taken are by accident. When I try to use abbreviations, the phone’s suggested words slow me down, or insert nonsensical phrases. Plus, even though I submit to temptation of abbreviated language, I don’t like it. I feel dirty, like I’m disappointing Mrs. Philo.
Therefore, I propose a compromise. How about a mandatory course in The Written Word. It would teach:
• How to write cursively, for the purpose of signing one’s name to important documents and giving students the option – and advantages – of using longhand to record and process information and ideas. The focus would be utilitarian, not artistic, so no student would miss recess simply because his g’s pointed in the wrong direction.
• How to keyboard. If handwriting seems an outdated skill, keyboarding is today an essential one. They could even teach keyboarding with one’s thumbs and standardize abbreviations through a task force comprised of students and their grandparents.
• How to take notes. Effective note-taking is not easy. It’s really a form of thinking – synthesizing information, processing its meaning and import, discovering subtleties and nuances, and drawing inferences and conclusions.
• How to revere the written word. Language is power, and those who master it have dominion over those who are indifferent to its strength, its beauty, and its essential role in making a person worth knowing.
That’s not too much to ask of our schools. Is it?
Don Sevener is a former writer and editor for Illinois Times. He has little time to practice his cursive since he devotes most writing time to his blog – don7er.com.