The curse of cursive

Should schools still teach cursive?

By Sarah Sidlow

In school, we learned all sorts of important things that set us up for a lifetime of success. Like how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder, the difference between a rhombus and a regular parallelogram, and how to write in cursive. It’s a good thing they didn’t waste our time on things we’d never use again, like managing a budget, filing your taxes, or putting together anything from Ikea.

While many schools still require things like rope-climbing, a number of them have removed cursive from the required curriculum to address other areas of concern, like helping struggling readers.

But some Ohio lawmakers are itching to bring cursive back. Last week, Ohio House Education Committee Chairman Andrew Brenner introduced a bill to mandate that kindergarteners through fifth-graders be instructed in handwriting. The goal is for students to be able to print legibly by third grade, and to write in cursive by grade five.

Advocates argue that learning cursive helps hone fine motor skills and is needed for signing important records and reading historical handwritten documents.

Others argue that putting pen to paper is a necessary brain-tickler—particularly in the age of emails and texts. Some occupational therapists cite studies that link learning to write in cursive with improved brain development in the areas of thinking, language, and working memory. Cursive handwriting, they say, stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing. In fact, the College Board found that students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT scored slightly higher than those who printed. Coincidence? It’s more than fancy loops and swirls, advocates argue—and more about thought formation, which is encouraged through the physical application of cursive writing.

But there are those who argue that in this digital age, cursive writing is just a relic of the past that should be left off classroom schedules. Very few adults use cursive for day-to-day writing, they argue, and when it happens, other people may have a hard time reading it. Considering most of our communication is done on a keyboard (or through 21st century hieroglyphics known as emojis), there’s no reason to spend time and resources on the preservation of cursive.

“As we have done with the abacus and the slide rule,” writes Morgan Polikoff in a 2013 New York Times opinion piece, “it is time to retire the teaching of cursive. The writing is on the wall.”
Also, any sort of proposed curriculum change usually brings up this dreaded phrase: Common Core Standards. To re-introduce cursive into education, it would need to be integrated into the Common Core Standards for those grade levels. Some educators argue that doing so would dilute the purpose and scope of Common Core, which should focus on knowledge and skills proven to directly impact success in the classroom and the workforce.
Two things worth noting: the same bill was introduced in Ohio in 2015 but failed to pass; and at the time of this writing, this author believes the bill to be printed electronically, not handwritten.

Reach Dayton City Paper debate moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should schools still teach cursive?

 

Font of knowledge

There’s room for more than one form of writing in our schools

By Ben Tomkins

Researching the various opinions of educational theorists and experts as to whether or not cursive should continue to be taught in public schools quickly reminded me why I can’t stand attending educational conferences. It seems—and the irony of this is painful enough to invite Hephaestus to split open one’s skull with a hammer to release the fully-grown Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom—the production of an opinion does not require an understanding of what the hell one is talking about.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor of pedantry at the University of Southern California, sums up the argument that cursive should be “allowed to die,” because “a very small proportion of adults use cursive for their day-to-day writing. Much of our communication is done on a keyboard, and the rest is done with print. Additionally, there is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching.” He then goes on to murmur sweet nothings about Common Core in much the same way that a person suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome must indulge a tic, and for good measure reminds us that blind faith and arguments from authority are important—perhaps even eternal—components of any good educational system:

“The architects of the standards certainly weighed the inclusion of cursive and believed there was no need to include it. Thus, educators and policymakers should resist the urge to add more skills.”

As the old line goes, the thinking has been done for us. I presume he wiped his mouth before defending his Ph.D. thesis to the committee, but it hardly matters. He already suffers from the disease of “being a know-it-all,” which infects almost all education policy makers.

Apparently, to the educated mind, the curriculum can tolerate no more than two forms of writing the English language, and with the advent of the computer, one of them needs to go, lest, as Polikoff warns us, we “add more skills to the Common Core and…undermine the strength of the standards.”

This approach reeks of the false premise that cursive and print are dogmatic axioms of penmanship. Both cursive and block print are fonts, not pedagogical slave chains for composing sentences with a writing implement thrust into the cleft of our inelegant, piggy little hooves. The only reason either of them is taught in school is because they are merely two of the most generic fonts from which many others can be understood and produced. In practical reality, there is a limitless number of fonts we could be teaching students, and the vast majority of them fall into one of two categories: those made with straight lines, and those comprised of—Lord, forgive me—curly “q’s.”

Ironically, it is the computer that has brought fonts into the everyday consideration of the average person. They are extremely expressive, and in the business and graphic design worlds, there are people who devote their entire careers to selecting fonts from the nearly limitless possibilities available. As an example, take a look at this page. The font being used here includes serifs, which no child is ever taught to write in school. However, it is a form of the straight line family of letters that makes the printed word appear more erudite and scholarly by adding plinths to the columns of our glorious language.

It is equally important to learn cursive, which is the archetype of the curly fonts. It is important to note that, as in Hungary, students could be instructed exclusively in cursive rather than print and do just fine. Without learning to produce both, however, students will miss out on an entire hemisphere of language expression that is already splattered across our cultural canvas. It may not seem like a big loss when the steam from a cup of coffee in a logo goose-steps out of the cup in block Times New Roman letters rather than enticing swirls of Edwardian Script, but the idea of half the fonts being edited out in the name of practicality sounds more than a little Orwellian (Newfont for your Newspeak, sir?). If we aren’t taught it, cursive will cease to be a component of our expressive capabilities.

This is not merely a question of preserving an antiquated cultural tradition. A generation that never learns to use cursive is in danger of undergoing a cultural regression regarding language and expression. When the hand learns to write, it is etching a form of expression into the mind of the author and the muscle memory of the body. It is a worthy effort to imbue our children with the capacity for expressing themselves in multiple forms of English characters, and thus doubling their ability to think and express themselves through the ever-increasing vocabulary of font. Homogenization of communication standards is good when it comes to spelling, but it is downright creepy when the government is eliminating forms of language expression for “the good of our children.”

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Cursing against cursive

Teaching cursive in schools is outdated, irrelevant

By Don Hurst

Schools should let cursive writing fade away with the other educational system relics. Let it fade away until cursive is even more indecipherable than the mangled heap of hieroglyphics I sign on every legal document. A blind drunk on roller skates in the middle of an earthquake could produce more legible scrawl than my cursive writing.

With all that is going on in the world I should not have such a visceral reaction to cursive. But I do, and I think Mrs. Hufnagle’s class in elementary school is to blame. Mrs. Hufnagle held very strong opinions about cursive and my inability to differentiate between a “q”and a “z.” She forced me to skip recess to practice, on the day that Jenny, who sat behind me, and I planned to meet behind the swing set for an awkward first kiss. Instead, Jenny went behind the swing set with Kyle, forever altering the trajectory of my life and souring me on cursive writing.

I am horrible at the cursive, but that’s not why I think schools should stop teaching it. I am also horrible at geometry, physics, computer programming, Spanish, Chinese, calculus, algebra, addition, and subtraction, but I believe schools should keep teaching these subjects, or start if they aren’t teaching them.

Cursive was barely relevant 30 years ago when I learned it. I can’t imagine how an elementary school kid today will ever use it. It’s not like those kids will ever write a check. They’ll wave the chip implanted in their wrists to pay for everything. Maybe we teach them so they learn empathy for the 80-year-old woman backing everything up at the Meijer express checkout lane?

Maybe they’ll need to sign legal documents? Doubt it. Most of the time, I digitally sign with a PIN. Adobe lets me type my name and it spits out a legible signature. What a glorious age we live in. Machines can do my math. Machines can do my driving. Let machines do my cursive.

It just seems anachronistic to teach children more advanced technology at younger ages while teaching them something so outdated. All right children, put away the Chrome Books and take out your parchment paper, vials of ink, and quills.

Actually, now that I’ve put that thought to virtual paper, I love it. Let’s teach our kids all kinds of outdated stuff. We could go back to a time when boys went to shop class and girls learned to cook and sew. We should bring back the card catalog system! Younger readers are like, what is this guy talking about? Say you want to find a book. Nowadays, you type the title into a computer and the computer tells you the book’s location. When I was in high school, we had to search through a giant cabinet with skinny drawers that contained a notecard for every single book in the library in alphabetical order.

Gym teachers can instruct students on the joys of stickball and hoop. Before the quilting bee, but after the barn raising, the young’uns will play a rousing game of jacks behind the salting shed.

Let’s keep dialing back the clock. Medical schools used to teach doctors the joys of leeches and bloodletting. That makes about as much sense as cursive. Actually, more sense. Leech saliva contains peptides and proteins that break up blood clots and reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that these little blood suckers contain anti-metastasizing properties that inhibit the spread of lung cancer. Surgeons even used leeches to relieve post-operative venous congestion in a 37-year-old man who had a completely amputated penis.

Let’s see cursive do that! Leeches: way more useful than cursive writing.

I think it’s funny the Ohio Department of Education wants to add more items to the curriculum. I guess if kids were nailing the current subjects, then we could bring cursive back. Maybe kids have mastered the skills required to read above their age levels, understand algebra, explain basic scientific principles, balance a budget, and write a coherent essay. Maybe they are sitting around the school, just staring at each other, because they have learned everything they need to know for college, work, and life.

Somehow I doubt that. Whenever I see teachers, I never get the vibe that they are way ahead of schedule and could kill some time with an archaic skill that is becoming less and less relevant in our digital age. I can’t imagine teachers sitting in their lounge, kicking back with mimosas, lamenting about how bored they are and how much they wish the state would figure out a way for them to fill these surplus hours.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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