OPINION: The dying art of cursive writing

July 19, 2012 By Tom Purcell
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I’m torn about it if you want to know the truth.

I speak of the death of cursive handwriting, which I read about recently in the Atlantic Wire.

As it goes, many American schools are phasing out lessons in cursive. There is a waning need for it in the modern era, some argue, and the classes take too much time.

The origin of cursive dates back centuries. It’s the result of technology innovations using inkwells and quill pens made from goose feathers.

Since the ink dripped when you lifted the quill from the paper, it made sense to connect letters and words together in one flowing line — and the art of cursive writing began.

My mother and father, now in their 70s, were taught to master cursive in the 1940s.

Their handwriting is beautiful still. It is a joy to watch them artfully write out a check.

I grew up in the 1970s, the era of Bic ballpoint pens. Such pens didn’t leak and, technically, didn’t require cursive writing. But the good nuns of St. Germaine Catholic School still made us master it.

They’d be horrified to see the chicken scratch I write now, though I have an excuse.

I am a product of the electronic era. I do most of my writing on a computer. I’ve become very fast at keying in my thoughts. When I write by hand, though, I am so agitated by the slowness, I rush it along. My signature looks like surrealist painter Salvador Dali threw up. 

Now the debate on whether to continue teaching cursive is growing.

“With technology pervasive in society and fewer documents that need a cursive signature, some educators say there is no need to bother kids with the tedious, time-consuming lessons on cursive,” says The Sun of Baltimore.

Curses to that, say others.

Katie Zezima argues in The New York Times that if people are not taught cursive, they’ll be more at risk of forgery; printing in block letters is much easier to replicate.

And the development of fine motor skills will be thwarted, she adds.

Besides, she asks, how will people unfamiliar with cursive read historical documents, such as the U.S. Constitution? 

That’s probably not the best argument in favor of cursive. Fewer people read and abide by the Constitution much anymore.

I’m certainly a proponent of moving forward with innovation and the arguments against teaching cursive have their points.

Heck, I am sitting in a coffee shop writing this column on a laptop computer. Thanks to the Internet and wireless technologies, I am able to run a communications business from anywhere on Earth. I have virtually no need for cursive handwriting.

Then again, I worry that in our eagerness to advance, we will toss out the baby with the bath water.

One of my most prized possessions is a letter written by my father’s father in 1924 consoling a woman whose mother had just died. He wrote the letter when he was 21 (he died at 34 when my father was only 3).

I was given the letter in 1997 by the son of the woman my grandfather wrote the letter to. I was struck by how similar my grandfather’s style is to my father’s — how similar his tone and style are to mine — and moved by the beauty and artfulness of his signature.

I can’t imagine a world in which people no longer have a cursive signature — and handwritten letters are no longer left behind for future generations to cherish.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.

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