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305. Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

When was the last time someone sent you a handwritten letter?  Thank you notes don’t count!

Sound of crickets……

Okay, so when was the last time someone sent you a cursive handwritten letter?

Sound of choruses of crickets…..

You’re not alone and don’t expect to get one anytime soon, especially from someone under the age of 25.

Right before our eyes, society is losing a way of communicating that many of us older folks take for granted.

It seems our fast-paced way of life has devalued learning how to write cursive. In the classroom the computer keyboard is fast replacing pen and paper. And it’s so much cooler to text and tweet.

Looking past our nostalgia for the way we did things in the 80’s is a genuine concern for our children’s decreased ability to express themselves, which seems to be directly related to the lack of cursive writing skills.

According to an October 11, 2006 article by Margaret Webb Pressler of The Washington Post:

The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit. Children who don't learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it. Schools that do teach handwriting often stop after third grade -- right after kids learn cursive. By the time computers are more widely used in classrooms for writing, perhaps in fourth or fifth grade, many children already have decided they don't like to write.

This really hit home for me, a dad and an artist who teaches design at a leading liberal arts university.

My five-year-old daughter started in a Montessori school at age three. Right away, the teacher encouraged exercises that helped develop her cursive writing skills. As a result, her fine motor skills improved with other tasks like tying laces. However, now because she will be starting first grade in the public school system the same Montessori teacher has been nurturing more print letter writing because that is the preferred method there. 

Caring about my daughter and my students, I started to investigate the demise of cursive writing in our society. Here are the condensed results of what turned out to be a seven-month investigation, with some questions for you to consider.

Cursive writing is fast becoming a dinosaur in the school system...and we know what happened to them! Cursive writing is no longer a priority in an elementary teacher’s overloaded day of teaching technology and the material students need to score well on standardized tests.  Is the SAT the culprit, where we are requiring the regurgitation of information?  You can spend weeks surfing the net reading hundreds of articles about the state of our educational system and the SAT, something you can do on your own time.

What really floored me in my observations was children’s loss of joy for the act of creating, something I don’t want to happen to my daughter. The forming of shapes that create letters that then create words which are used to create communication is a fundamental act of expression. This joy of creating can also be considered a piece of their personalities that could be lost. Open loops versus tight lines surely have to have some correlation to one's personality type, right? Yet another investigation to begin.

Now let me turn to my teaching experience. The act of learning cursive handwriting has many correlations to art and design other than typographical. Most art departments in large and small universities across America have core foundation classes.  The students usually take these classes during their freshmen year in order to advance into upper level studio courses. I feel the most important of these are the drawing classes. Most students don’t like to take them because they feel they can’t “draw” well. However, they miss the bigger point about the course’s purpose. Most artists aren’t born with the tools to draw well. Drawing is primarily a learned skill that takes lots of practice and discipline. Once students become more comfortable with their ability to draw, the ideas and concepts are more forthcoming. I see it every year. The students who have the confidence in drawing are more expressive with concepts during the thumbnail sketch phases of a project. Likewise, research has shown that students who wrote in cursive during the essay portion of the SAT presented more complex expressed thoughts. 

The mechanics of drawing with your hand has a direct correlation to writing cursive letters. Both are fluid and spontaneous actions. Because it's fluid, it lends itself to intuitive mark making. It’s analogous to a stream of consciousness and uninterrupted thought processes. Logical isn’t it?

With all of my questions, I decided to contact a high school English teacher, someone on the front line in the cursive debate in the city where I live. These are her comments :

  • The vast majority of my students write in print rather than cursive.
  • Students complain about reading my cursive script from the board.
  • The standard for a formal school manuscript seems completely illusive. Generally, students have created their own script. Many young girls like very rounded, crowded lettering, while many boys seem to prefer a smaller haphazard script.
  • I predict that in the future rather than requiring something to be typed as the standard of proficiency and accomplishment, teachers will challenge students to hand write it instead.  
  • I can see a hierarchy developing between those who understand the value of the handwritten note, thank you card, or letter and those who believe a text message is quite sufficient -- and maybe it is in this fast and furious and global world. 
  • Students use the most expedient means for their communication, and that happens to be buttons or keys rather that the cumbersome pen and paper.
  • I am concerned that my students won't be able to read their grandparents' love letters or the Constitution of the United States, but with the advances in technologies, my concern is of little import.
  • What’s as equally distressing is that more and more elementary students lack creative writing/story telling skills. They employ pre-existing characters and storylines that they’ve seen in Disney movies or Nickelodeon programs.
  • I also believe the quiet, meditative aspects of writing are lost on this generation. At one time the practice of forming letters beautifully was a useful and calming way to spend time and energy. It was the way my mother kept me still and content during long sermons at church.  She would give me a page on which she had written the alphabet and allow me to copy it over and over -- nice memory.  In fact, there is a written meditation practice called Japa that is merely the written repetition of a particular word or symbol page after page. That may be why young girls take such pleasure in writing the name of their boyfriends over and over again.?
  • Division of class is beginning to develop. Students from more affluent homes (be it monetary or higher educational status) tend to write in cursive and are able to read it. Less fortunate students print letters and prefer the computer keyboard.

This cursive debate has much to say about the human condition. It is for you to determine if cursive writing is worth teaching. So, I leave you with my thoughts about the demise of cursive lettering. In about 50 years will future generations realize that word marks, logos like the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles are actually a forgotten way of writing? 

Side note:  I am currently teaching a one week design workshop with rising seniors from affluent high schools. Five out of the nine can write cursive.

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Reader Comments (2)

This is a very striking article.

I have a brother and sister below the age of 25. Both don't write letters, they type emails and send texts.

Their world view is strikingly different:"Writing is a lot slower."

"Did you get that at school?" I asked? Both don't know where they got that from.

Nature vs. Nurture?
July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJae Xavier
Great post.

Wish I'd have thought of this distinction when I was teaching high school art. I would have paid more attention to the issue. Could make some great art exercises.
August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob Atkins

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