Cursive: It’s Not Just Writing

Cursive is quickly becoming a lost art. With the emergence of the typewriter and then the computer keyboard, the knack of writing in cursive is disappearing along with basic skills like mental math, map reading and navigation, and — gasp! — using a dictionary.

When will the madness end?!

But, seriously, folks, this is becoming a real problem and not only for those who want a career in calligraphy (which, by the way, could earn you in the ballpark of $50k annually). I’m talking about the youngest generation here; the pre-K and elementary school-aged kids who are just taking up the reins in perfecting their fine motor skills, which are critically important for brain development as well as basic daily function.

champagneIntricate script, intricate history

Who doesn’t like having a swirly letter sent their way, complete with creative filigree to fancy it up a notch? Well, perhaps those who can’t read it. But for the rest of us, reading cursive (i.e. script) fonts makes us feel just a wee bit fancy. Cursive is like the champagne of writing. Bubbly and fun with just a hint of over-the-top eccentricity. Woo hoo!

But it doesn’t start, or end, there.

While original cursive was started by the Romans, the Italians are credited with simplifying, while still maintaining some prettiness, what was quickly becoming a complex writing style; hence, we have italic script. Through the years cursive became a mark of stature: The uneducated wrote in block printing (if at all), while the elite and educated learned script, what we commonly know today as cursive.

Cursive is more than it seems

Cursive doesn’t only teach people how to write prettily, although that was how today’s version of cursive evolved: for looks, not ease. It also teaches patience and conscientiousness, as well as training the muscles of the hands and specific parts of the brain to master minute movements that otherwise wouldn’t be learned.

There’s also a lot of fine motor skills and mental training in learning how to s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n a little and write in cursive.

Honing a child’s fine motor skills can help them tie their shoes (really… what’s with all the Velcro lately?), tie a tie, button buttons, go potty by themselves (who doesn’t want that?!), and color in the lines. More than theses things though, according to an article in Scientific Learning,

Recent research has demonstrated a clear connection between the development of fine motor skills in early life and later success in math, science and reading.

And, as mother and home school teacher Candace Massey says,

I think cursive trains the brain and disciplines them … It makes them slow down and make connections as they dip and loop, hook and repeat. They are more aware of the margins and they turn in neater, more organized work as a result.

I’m all for teaching our kids (and ourselves) to slow down a little.

Granted there are ways other than learning cursive to satisfy the need to develop mental discipline and fine motor skills. Using scissors, drawing, coloring, playing with Legos (the small ones, not Mega Blocks) are all great ways to develop those tiny movements of our smaller muscles in the fingers, hands, and eyes.

But, what task other than cursive closes the gap and builds synapses (little brain bridges) between knowledge (sharing thoughts), communication (writing), and small, physical movements (coordination)?

I would argue there is none.

A vying opinion

In doing research for this article I found an opposing opinion piece, which has an opening statement that reads:

Spending any classroom time on [cursive writing] is comparable to teaching how to use an abacus: it’s interesting as a history lesson, and probably offers some side benefits, but it is not at all practical as a day-to-day skill in the modern, connected world.

What more do I have to point to to defend cursive other than to remind how Asian countries, who teach their children mental arithmetic using abaci, are excelling far ahead of America in math and science? Besides that, abaci come in pocket-sizes (as big as a handheld calculator or phone), so they aren’t big, clumsy tools, and that’s only if you’re not doing calculations mentally, the abacus way!

If those reasons don’t convince you that the abacus, like cursive, isn’t as obsolete as some might believe, then watch this video and prepare to be amazed at what these kids can do, knowing they’re the competition for America’s own young generation:

I will agree on one point, however: there really are only so many hours in a day, and it is important for education systems to prioritize. And, yes, “Every hour spent learning an obsolete skill…is time they’re not learning…essential life-skills”.

I contend with the writer, however, that programming doesn’t top the list of skills needed to get great jobs. There are plenty of other jobs out there that are great — and essential to human existence — that don’t require any programming knowledge whatsoever.

(Also, what happens to all those computer programmers when an EMP goes off, a threat that is very, very real according to Forbes (see prior link) and the Wall Street Journal? Looks like those programmers will be forced to brush up on their handwriting, mental math, and non-computer skills. That’s why it’s so important to step away from electronics and learn a little Renaissance-ism every once in a while.)

A symbol of status, or only of age?

According to History.com, “elegant handwriting emerged as a status symbol” and around 1955 it was obvious that the Americans’ status in the handwriting circles was waning: The US was dubbed “a ‘nation of scrawlers'” by one of the most popular magazines around!

Dec 3, 2013. Bill Chappell. (http://media-cache.wnyc.org/people/bill-chappell/) From NPR.

With the skill of handwriting swiftly on the decline it wouldn’t surprise me if we were to revert back to the days of writing in all capitals, as was the norm in the early days of history. I also wonder if handwriting would return to the stage as a status symbol, with typing — the skill once preferred by the “elite” in the early days of word processing — falling to the wayside, fading into the background as the “common man’s communication”.

But, considering the connection between cursive, fine motor skills, and cognitive function, would it be reasonable to say that taking cursive out of the hands of our youth is actually and realistically detrimental to their futures? Is perhaps the loss of focus on handwriting one of the [many] reasons our kids lag in reading, math, and science?

Will the US eventually become not only a ‘nation of scrawlers’ but a nation of sloppy thinkers?

Like manners — the other thing quickly disappearing from our internet-strong, automation-based, too-eager-to-share-everything existence — I just hope coloring will never be completely out of the picture and be replaced with kids’ tablet and touchscreen versions of MS Paint or Adobe Photoshop.

What a tragedy that would be.


How do you feel about cursive getting the boot in the public school system?

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