Growing up, I’d always hear variations of the phrase, “What am I ever going to use that for?” tossed around in my school classes.
Algebra? “I’ll never need algebra in my life.”
Chemistry? “Who cares how many electrons are in a Polonium atom?”
Literature? “James Joyce is a whack-job megalomaniac.”
I should point out that I don’t necessarily endorse these opinions. Heck, Joyce being a whack-job is what makes him so great. But nothing stokes the fires of doubt and authority-questioning quicker than the feeling you’re being taught something without practical utility, regardless of whether that opinion holds water or not.
Interestingly enough, I rarely heard these phrases describe the act of writing in cursive, probably for a couple reasons. First, American students tend to learn elegant handwriting around second grade, too young to properly communicate angsty doubt. Second, there always seemed to be a feeling that cursive was somehow important. It’s how you signed your name. It’s how letters were written. It was very adult.
I’m ruminating on this topic because earlier today I read an interesting piece on cursive handwriting at Vox. The author, Libby Nelson, analyzes recent attempts by several state legislatures (Tennessee, North Carolina, California, Georgia, Idaho, and Massachusetts) to keep cursive alive in elementary school classrooms. Nelson doesn’t pretend to take a neutral stance here—the title of her post begins with “Cursive handwriting is useless…” She recounts the history of the form, examines the reasons why it’s faded over the past 50 years, and argues in favor of abandoning “a skill that most adults rarely use”:
“The real reason cursive is fading is that the arguments in favor of it are pretty weak. They usually center on students being able to read the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (which were originally written in copperplate script, and are hard to decipher even for people who studied cursive in school) or on developing fine motor skills, which can also be cultivated in other ways.
As teachers devote more and more time to preparing students for standardized tests, the amount of wiggle room in the curriculum for cursive will probably decrease—just as simpler handwriting styles replaced the elaborate cursive of the 19th century. Legislation can forestall that, but not forever.”
The most recent Common Core standards don’t consider learning cursive to be worth the effort. Nelson cites a study from 2003 that shows teachers had already deprioritized the practice by the turn of the century. A major reason for this is because the advent of digital and text-based communication revolutionized the way we communicated. One of the selling points for cursive was that it’s quicker than normal handwriting. You know what’s a lot faster than both of those? E-mail. And texting. And Microsoft Word. Most people these days hardly write anything of substance with pen and paper. It’s mostly filing out forms or signing contracts or addressing an envelope. What’s the point of fancy handwriting when it’s used less and less often each year?
Still, there’s a kind of nostalgic fondness that I feel for cursive. I prefer using it when send handwritten notes. I like that it allows me to beautify my writing. I can’t think of many practical uses for it, but to discredit the practice simply on that basis betrays a mechanic allegiance solely to things that can be deemed “practical.” Is art practical? Is memorizing world capitals practical? Heck, is James Joyce practical? Probably not, but that’s not why we include those in our studies. And I think that’s probably the best argument in favor of keeping cursive on life support. It’s a matter of style, not substance.
And if we let it go, it might be gone forever.
Read more at Vox.
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