Scene: Throne room of Emperor He, Han Dynasty, first century China
Cai Lun, inventor of paper: Your Highness, I have invented a new material to use for written communication. I call it paper. No longer will you have to carve your thoughts on bamboo strips or clay tablets. Our written calligraphy may have to change to accommodate the new technology, but communications will greatly improve.
Emperor He: But doesn’t carving calligraphy teach you manual dexterity and cognitive skills? If this causes our calligraphy to change, won’t future generations not be able to read older documents? And what will become of bamboo farms and clay tablet makers?
With ubiquitous electronic gadgets taking over nearly all forms of human communication, there is a great debate brewing between educators, parents, and politicians over whether American students should still be taught cursive writing. At the center of that debate is the infamous Common Core curriculum, which does not require cursive training. Since Common Core standards are pervasive throughout the country, cursive writing, which forced generations of school children to watch how they wrote their p’s and q’s, may be on the verge of extinction.
Proponents of Common Core argue that since the standard communication tool used today is electronic media, it only makes sense to teach students to communicate using the technology they will most likely use. Feedback from teachers support that goal, citing the intensive time and energy needed to teach cursive writing—time and energy, they argue, that could be used elsewhere. Besides, proponents say, students are still being taught how to print, so handwriting is not completely being eliminated.
Defenders of cursive writing argue three main points. The first deals with the scientific evidence supporting cursive as an important tool for cognitive development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, and language learning. The second argument deals with the loss of the ability to read important historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The third argument is more emotional. It mixes a bit of childhood nostalgia with the beauty of cursive writing as a personal art form.
If the conflict was limited to those general pro and con arguments, then there might be some hope that a rational decision could be made and we could move forward. However, although Common Core is not a true national standard, the federal government’s fingerprints are all over it. Included in the program, are financial incentives for states to adopt its controversial standards, many of which have progressive/liberal overtones.
As we all know, once politics gets involved, rationality be damned. Just mention Common Core to a wrong audience and you might not get out alive. I get it. I don’t like the federal government’s involvement in education either. However, what if Common Core was never created; could the pro or con cursive arguments stand on their own?
Although a majority of states have accepted Common Core standards in one form or another, about seven states have listened to the pro-cursive arguments and have mandated cursive writing be added to their education programs. Louisiana may be the most extreme by mandating students receive instruction in cursive from the 3rd through 12th grades.
Like many other states, Ohio doesn’t currently require cursive to be taught in schools because it’s not part of the Common Core standards. However, cursive instruction is included in the state’s optional “model curriculum” for the third and fourth grades.
Several Ohio representatives want Ohio to strengthen its cursive requirements. Republican Reps. Andrew Brenner and Marilyn Slaby have proposed legislation that would make cursive instruction mandatory between kindergarten and fifth grade. Specifically, House Bill 58 would require schools to ensure students can write legibly in standard print by third grade and in cursive by the end of fifth grade.
Rep. Slaby is a former teacher and believes cursive is important for a number of reasons.
I feel very strongly about cursive writing, but even more strongly about handwriting in general. I think it’s important for the children of today to learn how to use a pencil and pen; it’s part of how they learn to read…. We live in a society where you have to have a signature. You don’t print a signature. You write a signature (in cursive). … It takes a heck of a lot longer to print things than it does to cursive-write them.
A similar Ohio bill was introduced in 2015, but it did not pass. The current bill already has thirteen representatives signed on as co-sponsors.
Although I am sympathetic to the general criticism against Common Core, I believe the cursive defenders are misguided. Cognitive development can be accomplished through many other curriculum activities. As to reading historical documents, how many of us can read the Dead Sea Scrolls, original Bible text, the Magna Carta, and countless other important historical, religious, and cultural documents?
This leaves the emotional/nostalgic argument. I remember as a kid looking at the cursive capital letter “Q” and thinking how strangely cool it looked and wondering why grownups used the same symbol used for the number two. I’m sure many others have similar or distinct memories of their cursive learning experience, considering that the cursive alphabet was written across the top of the front blackboard in nearly every school room across the country.
However, the discussion between Cai Lun and Emperor He at the beginning of this article applies directly to the pro-cursive arguments. What heated battles were fought over ye olde Great Vowel Shift of the Middle Ages? But yet here we are pronouncing the word spelled b-i-t-e as “bite,” instead of the original pronunciation closer to “beet” and we’re none the worse for it. As for cursive, English cursive, as we currently know it in America, is a relatively new process that only became standardized roughly in the 18th to 19th centuries.
My penmanship is so bad that I went through college without taking notes because I couldn’t read my own handwriting. And believe me, it wasn’t for a lack of effort by the Sisters of Charity. For many like me, as well as for society in general, the invention of the typewriter and modern word processors have been a godsend.
Yes, there may be a special connection made between two people when one writes and the other receives a beautifully written personal letter. The same argument could be made for almost anything that was once made by hand and given to another. But there are few other applications that require cursive; newspapers, books, and TV don’t. If cursive is taught, what will reinforce it? Will all school assignments be required to be in cursive? They don’t now.
The bottom line is, the same technology that may kill cursive has allowed billions of people to communicate that otherwise would never pick up a pen to even write “Hello.” Electronic media is the latest stage in the democratization of information. The tradeoff will have some negative consequences, but overall, I think it will be well worth the price.
P.S. No cursive was used in the production of this article.