Several years ago I briefly dated a man with young children. Anybody who knows me can well imagine why that relationship did not last more than a few weeks. I feel about children the way Republicans feel about taxes. They might be necessary for the continuation of society, but whatever. That, though, is not the point of this post. What did stick with me from that dating experience was that he once mentioned that his daughter was not learning cursive writing in school. After all, he argued, they do everything on the computer now anyway. Why would they need such an antiquated skill? Living in the shadow of Decaying Midwestern Urban Center, I figured that this astounding news was just another local failing in an already pretty dismal school system. The antipathy that the rest of the nation feels for this region had now cost students the very ability to communicate on paper! Not only do we not deserve jobs or a well-maintained infrastructure, but it appeared that we also shouldn’t be able to jot down a grocery list with speed! It always feels good to have righteous indignation about the nation’s uncaring attitude toward the industrial Midwest.
The past year of teaching, however, revealed that this was no local anomaly. You see I taught the U.S. History survey for the first time in many years. Consider it the jury duty of the history professorate. Since I do my best to give even freshman students an idea of what professionals historians actual do, I often assign some significant amount of writing. I began to notice that students took an unusually long time to complete even the most basic in-class essay. Even a paragraph took what seemed like a century. Then I observed that each of them always submitted about a page of neatly block-printed prose. Each letter of each word seemed like it had been crafted with more attention than John Hancock’s signature on a forged ship’s manifesto. Well, if John Hancock had never learned cursive writing. It brought me back to what the former boyfriend had mentioned about his own children. Had we reached the point where students no longer even knew how to write cursive? Little did I know it was deeper than that.
It really did not cross my mind again for another several weeks. In the meantime, I had assigned a document reader of historical sources entitled American History Firsthand: Working with Primary Sources. This choice proved imperfect to be sure. After all, this careful collection of materials lacked a single document from any Latina/o – ever. Apparently the editors imagined that no such people existed in this country despite the fact that they are now the largest minority population. But I digress.
I selected this particular reader, despite its implicit anti-Latino bias, because of what it did do: mixing popular culture, visual, and political documents in one binding. It also reproduced those documents as closely as they might have appeared in an actual archive. This, I thought, simulated the work of actual historians without having to march all my students to an actual archive. After all, the idea of 170 students descending on a manuscript collection would make any archivist sweat more than Rick Santorum in a gay sauna.
The students in this class performed quite well and showed that they had smart and savvy skills. One day, though, when it came time to discuss a series of letters in the reader, they became oddly silent. After using up the usual bag of tricks to try and promote conversation, I asked them what was the deal? With some hemming and hawing, a lone brave student admitted that he couldn’t read the documents because they were in cursive. The rest of the students, happy that he had released the shameful truth, all agreed that the letters were unfathomable. This blew my mind. I mean, it was one thing to have never mastered writing cursive, but reading it was now out of the question? To be clear, too, I did not assign colonial-era documents written with the fluff and frills of old English. That mess could screw anybody up with all those "f's" that are really "s's". No, no. These were something written in the twentieth century with a clear and simple penmanship. I became curious and asked if they learned any cursive at all. They acknowledged that they spent a few days or so on it back in grade school. It was enough to learn a signature, but otherwise, why bother? They could type whatever they needed.
I suppose that there is a logic in the demise of cursive. When was the last time any of us wrote an actual letter to somebody? Anything longer than a sticky note is generally done on a computer. Yet, I can’t explain my unease that cursive is leaving the world.
It is peculiar that I should think such a thing since I have actually always struggled with my penmanship. In grade school I had only one Achilles heel to an otherwise spotless academic record. After all, I played well with others, never ran with scissors, and only occasionally ate library paste. Yet, my report card always listed a “carrottop” for handwriting. For those who did not attend Albuquerque Public Schools, a carrottop was this symbol: ^. It basically meant a “D”, but apparently educational theory in the 1980s suggested letter grades would be too demeaning to a third grader. A carrottop must have sounded so much more pleasant. It’s something you would give Peter Rabbit on his report card. Well, if Peter Rabbit’s future education hung precariously by a thread because he appeared functionally illiterate.
Forever after that point teachers would usually have only one complaint about my school work: “The boy’s handwriting is so messy and small that I almost went blind trying to read it.” It would not be until my freshman year in college that my handwriting improved dramatically. Oddly enough, it was a semester of Russian that turned things around quite a bit. While I can do nothing in that language other than ask directions to the Bolshoi theater, attempting to learn Russian had an odd side effect of transforming my penmanship. Having to learn an entirely new script meant that I also indirectly relearned how to write in cursive in English. This is not to say that I now write in calligraphy (I still field many complaints about my writing), but it is a vast improvement.
This peculiar knowledge about writing cursive puts an odd generational divide between my students and me. For instance, I will have to remember when I grade their papers to block print my comments. Oh, look at me, thinking they would actually read my comments on their papers! Silly, optimistic, GayProf. Nonetheless, it feels quite weird to have such a big gap between them and me. I am not that much older.
True, there are many other things that I do that would seem totally anachronistic to them as well. I proudly drive a car with a manual transmission – Anything else really isn’t really driving. I grill only with charcoal – Anything else isn’t barbequing, it’s just cooking outside. I still pay almost all my bills with actual checks – Anything else seems like a one-way path to identity theft. I therefore long ago accepted that I fell far behind in the social/technological world of my students. I would know if I was tweeting, right?
So it makes me a bit sad to think cursive is at as great a risk as Lindsay Lohan is for a relapse. If you remember this blog then you already know that I am more than a bit inclined to nostalgia. This morning’s coffee has already become a treasured bittersweet memory of something now gone.
The loss of cursive, though, really leaves me blue. It only speeds us even faster to becoming a cyborg nation. As much as I struggled with cursive, I do remember that learning it felt like a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. My mother always had to translate the notes or birthday cards that my grandparents sent in the mysterious scroll. Learning to write (even feebly) in the same manner felt the same as breaking the code of the Rosetta Stone to my nine-year old self. Now it appears that later generations will find the code forever locked to them.