Is cursive writing obsolete?

(Photo courtesy of Suzanne Bobo)

My sister Bonnie called from Colorado last week in a highly agitated mood. She had attended a meeting for parents of children entering the first grade at Highland Elementary and had learned that Emily, her daughter, would not be learning how to write in cursive.

In fact, Bonnie discovered, it had been years since cursive had been taught in any of the public schools in Emily’s district.

“How can that be?” my sister wondered. And for once she found me speechless.

As it turns out, Emily’s situation is hardly unique. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, adopted now by 44 states and territories, eschews cursive writing and embraces instead the skills deemed necessary for modern students, such as producing and publishing writing using technology, including the Internet.

In other words, according to those who have developed and adopted these standards, elementary students must be taught how to type and manipulate text using a computer.

Learning to print is given a cursory nod in the standards, but cursive writing is off the grid.

Alaska has not adopted the Common Core State Standards. However, cursive writing is not one of the skills specified in the Alaska Content Standards, adopted in 2006. Teachers in the Kodiak Island Bureau School District do teach cursive writing, but many agree with the gist of the value reflected by modern curriculum experts: that teaching cursive takes a tremendous amount of time that would be better spent teaching other things.

This is a judgment that bothers me, but it has taken me some time to figure out why.

There are practical benefits to mastering cursive writing. Even those who wish they didn’t have to teach or learn it agree that, once mastered, cursive writing is faster than printing. And with all its swirls and loop-di-loos, cursive writing is a wonderful means for developing fine motor skills.

Defending cursive for its pragmatic benefits is a strategy with built-in weaknesses. If we love cursive for its speed, we should love typing and texting even more. And manipulating computers and other digital devices also develops fine motor skills. The motor skills learnt by playing video games might be different from the motor skills developed by writing a flourish with a pen, but they are fine motor skills nonetheless, and a strong argument may be made that they are the specific fine motor skills necessary for success in the modern world.

The reason for cursive writing isn’t that it is fast or efficient. Cursive is more than that.

Writing in cursive is an expression of civility. When we put pen to paper, with an eye for both content and form, we connect brain, body and soul in a way that just isn’t possible when we write using a keyboard. And when we take the care to write our thoughts beautifully, we connect — tangibly and emotionally — to our reader. A hand-written letter is a joyful effort to write; a delight to receive.

The Art of Cursive belongs in the same category as the Art of Conversation. We pay attention to the aesthetic quality of our writing not because it is fast or because it is useful — characteristics we ascribe to machinery — but because we are engaged in an act that makes us fully human. And we are longing to connect with others who are doing the same.

It might be a mistake to think of cursive writing within the context of the standards developed for English curricula. Perhaps cursive belongs with art, music, theatre, dance, etiquette — the other disciplines that get the ax when the pressure for pragmatism is applied.

As time goes by, I suspect we will see that private schools and home schools will continue to teach cursive, but the discipline will be considered too cumbersome a dinosaur for our public schools. If children like Emily are to learn cursive, they will have to learn it at home.

Contact this writer at suzannebobo@aol.com or PO Box 264, Kodiak, AK 99615.

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