Writing Off Cursive

Because of the widespread use of computers, learning the fine art of handwriting in schools is gradually being erased


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Just as asteroids exterminated the dinosaurs and left their remains for paleontologists to ponder, computers may wipe out cursive writing, leaving behind yellowed manuscripts that only anthropologists can decode.

Just how far away that day is for Michigan students is uncertain. Right now, according to Writing Across the Curriculum, a state Department of Education guide for public schools, students must learn cursive writing. That means the state’s teachers are expected to teach it.

However, the Common Core State Standards, which Michigan’s Board of Education adopted in 2010, does not require graduating high schoolers to know how to write cursive. The standards, which all but a handful of states use, are designed to ensure that high-school graduates across the country are prepared for college and work.

It’s unclear if the common core standards will nullify Michigan’s cursive requirements, according to state Department of Education spokesman Jan Ellis. But it’s plain, Ellis says, that the tests the state’s students face in 2014 will not include cursive.

In other words, if you read between the lines, the handwriting is on the wall for cursive’s demise, or at least for teaching it in school. Don’t expect educators to cry at the funeral, though.

Laura Schiller, a Ph.D. literary consultant for Oakland Schools, says teachers need to minimize time spent on teaching cursive as other communication technology like computers and smart phones gradually take over. “For many people,” she says, “the only time they use handwriting now is when we sign something. We change with the times.”

Scott Warrow, president of the Birmingham Education Association, says he sees few students using cursive in his high-school English and social studies classes. “As you might expect with the movement toward technology and the use of computers, we haven’t maintained a rigorous effort to teach cursive,” he says.

So, as the common core standards spread across the country, they may well turn what’s left of the rigor in teaching cursive into rigor mortis.

A Mother’s View

Holly Avery, a Twin Lake, Mich., blogger, was initially incensed to learn that her fourth-grade son, Ethan, would not be learning to read and write cursive in school. She didn’t like the thought that her children wouldn’t be able to read notes from their grandmother, or that her kids weren’t learning something other children were.

“I want my child to at least be able to read it,” Avery says. “That’s an illiteracy of sorts.”

Avery subsequently researched the issue, and says, “There are such strong arguments on both sides that totally make sense to me.” She learned that the development of cursive script was a practical matter, designed to eliminate the blots of ink left on a page when a quill was repeatedly lifted and lowered to form the “sticks” and “balls” used in printing. She also discovered that the vast majority of people abandon cursive once they leave school, calling on it only when signing a legal document.

Today, Ethan, 13 and in eighth grade, prefers to type. His 10-year-old sister, Saroya, is curious about cursive and wants to learn it, but more as an art form than a means of everyday communication.

Writing as Socialization

Ruth Holmes, a handwriting examiner in Bloomfield Hills, sees learning cursive as a necessary part of social and psychological development, similar to how a baby needs to crawl before he walks. Not surprisingly, she believes that cursive writing, with its characteristic rightward lean and movement from left to right, fosters an attitude to move forward and reach out to other people, while printing encourages people to be in control, keep their emotions reined in, and lack empathy.

Holmes, who sometimes consults for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office and Sheriff’s Department, says that when threatening notes surface in high schools, very few are written in cursive. “They’re printed, indicating a need for more control,” she says. She’s concerned that eliminating cursive writing will only foster more bullying in schools.

A Look Back, and Inside

Marijean Levering, Ph.D., a native Detroiter who now is associate professor of theater at Utica College, in Utica, N.Y., reads primary-source documents for her work. For example, she combed through records written in cursive for her book, Detroit on Stage, about Detroit’s Players Club. What if she had never learned cursive in school, she wonders.

“I wouldn’t have access to well over half the documents,” she says, “or I would have to pay somebody else to transcribe them.”

In addition, she believes handwriting offers a glimpse into someone’s personality.

“When I was at The Henry Ford doing research on Edsel Ford, I looked through a folder of sympathy cards that Henry [Ford] received when Edsel passed away,” Levering says.

“The one I remember most is the one from Helen Keller. I have absolutely no memory of what she said, but I remember the remarkably neat and somewhat beautiful handwriting, and the clear indication that she had used a ruler to keep the writing evenly spaced. Her story is in her handwriting.”


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