The value of cursive

This was written by Alliance Review columnist Georgette Huff

Ancient Greeks did it.
So did Egyptians, as long ago as the time of the Pharaohs, and Pompeiians in the last moments before the eruption of Vesuvius.
In fact, until recently most Americans did it, too.
But, as I became aware from a letter I received from one of my nieces, the ranks of those who still can are thinning rapidly. That letter was an eye-opener. I had difficulty focusing on what she had to say, and after three or four readings I was finally able to pinpoint why. Every word was composed of primary-school, capital letters, with not a lower-case letter nor a snippet of cursive anywhere in those three pages.
I might have expected that, had she been an elementary student, but she was in her 30s at the time. When I commented about it, she and her two-years-younger sister told me they are “lucky” to know enough cursive to sign their names.
And now, with a growing number of school administrators asking, “Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?,” within a generation or two cursive handwriting could become a lost art.
If you ask me, even with lingering memories of my less-than-auspicious introduction to the skill, that would be a shame. As a left-handed student in a right-handed world, grade-school writing lessons were an ordeal to be dreaded, until a rare intervention by my mother made it clear that the knuckle-rapping and other related punishments were to stop. But once we were all on the same page, so to speak, an enchanting world opened.
I cannot explain why it is that handwriting fascinates me. Perhaps because it provides a tangible link to family members now gone. I’ve saved cards given to me by my late husband, Rick, and by my father; and cherish an envelope flap on which my mother wrote a limerick explaining concisely why I was most fortunate to have such a mother as she. Some days, when I open my grandmother’s fragile Bible, it’s as though I’m sitting beside her in her living room as she entered another milestone in our family’s history.
And no matter what else has happened, when I pull the mail from the box and see an envelope with Cicely’s or Jan’s or Chris’ or Genie’s handwriting, I know the day will end with a cup of tea and a connection to these indispensable friends.
But really, does it matter — handwriting? After all, as a 2007 article by Caitlin Carpenter in “The Christian Science Monitor” noted, “the keyboard is king.”
Steve Graham, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University, agrees. The issue, he says, isn’t what kind of handwriting is taught, but that children learn to be fluent in some type of transcription. The “most efficient way for anyone, including children, to record their thoughts is at a keyboard. Typing should be a key way that children communicate.”
Well, not so fast, say some others, as a growing body of evidence shows a connection between cursive writing and brain development.
Writing for the online site Helium in 2009, Beth McKinney said, “As information replaces industry in the marketplace, parents, educators, and students themselves have come to place more emphasis on the development of knowledge over the development of physical skills. Those who work with their hands are considered less valuable than those who work with their bodies in many sections of our society.”
“As a result,” McKinney continued, “schools place less emphasis on physical instruction such as cursive handwriting lessons.”
This is a mistake, according to experts such as neurologist Frank Wilson, who told McKinney, “You can’t really separate what’s in the mind from what’s in the body.” While Wilson appreciates the emphasis on relevant education,  he is clear that teachers should not “educate the mind by itself.”
Matthew Geiger tackled the same subject, again on Helium, in 2010.
Geiger noted that “outside the United States, cursive writing is taught before children learn how to print … many of us neglect our cursive writing skills, except to sign a document now and again, due to the advent of computer technology; however, cursive writing is both more efficient and more natural when mastered before print.”
Geiger credits cursive writing with improving eye-hand coordination and the development of fine motor skills, which in turn leads to the ability to “recognize abstract ideas like awareness of others and perception,” skills that give children “the tools they need to develop more sophisticated mental tools.”
But, if neither my own soliloquy nor experts such as McKinney, Geiger and Wilson are convincing enough, perhaps Steve Jobs can help to “connect the dots” between art and commerce.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Jobs explained that after dropping out of Reed College he continued to audit some classes, including a calligraphy class. “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture …”
“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. … It was the first computer with beautiful typography …”
And we know the rest of that story.

ghuff@the-review.com

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