June 2, 2011

Long live the written word

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:09 pm by chavisory

I got busy and haven’t had much time for writing lately, though I was following with interest the debate that broke out over the course of a couple weeks, across internet news sources, about, of all things, writing.  Specifically, on the value of cursive.  Whether we should still be teaching it, what its value is, whether it’s effectively a dead language, an art form but with little practical utility in the age of ubiquitous keyboards, a waste of teaching time or whether it’s still a necessary skill.

The Case for Cursive (New York Times)

The End of Cursive (The Responsibility Project)

Cursive is Dead, Long Live Typing With Our Keyboard Pushers! (The Village Voice)

Handwriting is a 21st Century Skill (The Atlantic)

Dozens of commenters attempted the argument that we shouldn’t waste time on cursive anymore because they never have to use it in their work.  But that would be like me saying that because I don’t use calculus on a day to day basis, we should stop teaching it.  I don’t use calculus; that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who need to use calculus.

And I need to write by hand on a nearly daily basis: Aside from this blog, I still keep a personal journal.  At rehearsals, while I mostly type notes immediately into my laptop, I can’t always have it with me, and the ability to write notes quickly and understandably is indispensable.  In college, I never took class notes on my laptop, even though I can type faster than writing, not only to avoid carrying a computer around all day but because somehow the physical act of writing makes me visually absorb and retain the information better than typing it does.  I still keep a paper planner for the same reason despite the easy and free availability of a number of computerized options.  If I haven’t written it, I haven’t actually remembered it quite the same way.  I write to my grandparents–both of my grandmothers have gorgeous cursive handwriting–and also to friends.  A Facebook message, fantastic as I think Facebook is, can’t beat the time and attention inherent in a real letter for some kinds of personal communication.  I love the idea of something being physically carried between two people, an artifact of affection.  There’s note-taking in circumstances where it would be rude to whip out a computer, but I can do so discretely and quietly with a notebook.

But more importantly that all of that for me, none of which is totally insurmountable without cursive, is this.  Most of this debate has been conducted as if the content or quality of writing or communication exists independently of its format or medium, and I don’t think that’s true.  I think that the physical process by which we communicate deeply affects the quality of the communication.  Not only do I write much differently than I speak, but there are things that I actually cannot speak, that I can only write.  Someone once described the phenomenon very succinctly when she wrote of her own daughter, “It’s like her hands know a language her mouth doesn’t.”  (Laura, this happened somewhere on your blog, but I cannot for the life of me find the post or the comment to link to it.)  Most people apparently can talk through their problems and uncertainties; I can’t.  Speaking is too much work for me to engage in problem-solving at the same time.  It requires a level of translation that writing somehow doesn’t.  I can’t problem-solve by speaking, but I can problem-solve by writing.

And within the realm of writing, I not only write very differently when I’m typing as opposed to writing by hand, but there are things that I cannot articulate by typing, only by handwriting, and vice versa.  There are thoughts that I can only will into existence with pen and paper.  Almost any creative, emotional or personal writing, I must do by hand.  When I write poetry (which I still do very occasionally), I can only do a first draft by hand.  I literally can’t type it; the words and the meter won’t come.  And something about the quality of thinking that requires complex or deep reflection matches the speed of writing in cursive for me.  Printing is far too slow to be useful for much of anything to me.  Typing is too fast; my fingers can get ahead of my brain to the point that what I type is meaningless.  Writing in cursive matches up to the speed of my train of thought.

It’s like how in Harry Potter’s universe, wizards require a wand to do magic.  Children can express a kind of vague and disorganized magic by will alone, but a real wizard has to use a wand for any purposeful, articulated magic.  For some kinds of writing and some kinds of thinking, my hand needs a pen the way a wizard needs a wand.

(But for other kinds of writing, typing is much better than writing by hand: anything fairly factual and straightforward, requiring the transcription of a large amount of information or detail, or when I basically already know what I want to say and only need to fine-tune it, such as when I have a longer paper or essay already extensively outlined.)

For me, the ability to write in cursive isn’t just a technical one, a compromise in speed between printing and typing, or an artistic one.  Cursive is a key to my own mind and my own creativity that’s granted by nothing else.  For me, saying that we shouldn’t teach or use cursive anymore is like saying that an entire mode of thought, practically an entire language, and one I think we can ill-afford to lose, should be eliminated.  And I think that’s something worth resisting, for more than aesthetic or romantic reasons.


  1. Aspergirl Maybe said,

    I love what you’ve written here.

    I recently had a conversation with a fourth grade teacher who said cursive writing is not required at her school any longer, although she does still spend some time on it. What I don’t understand is how kids are supposed to be able to read things that are written in cursive if they don’t know how to write it. It is inconceivable to me to just skip it altogether.

    • chavisory said,

      Thank you!

      As for the school not requiring it anymore, oh lord. I guess they’re just not expecting kids to ever have to read in cursive anymore? Which is seriously going to suck if they decide they want to go into something that will ever require evaluation of primary source documents. Way to prepare kids for academic success in the future! {sarcasm} And it kills me, too, because it honestly doesn’t take that long to *teach* it, it takes practice to *learn* it, like any other component of literacy. It’s not the teaching of writing that makes people write well–it’s actually writing, just like it’s actually reading that makes people read well. It’s *use* that instills the skill, and I’m scared for a society that purports to have no use for writing as a hands-on skill.

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  3. Emma said,

    Interesting post. I have to take a different view here. I can see what writing in cursive means to you, and how you use it to articulate your thoughts more clearly, but you grew up using it. It’s become part of your development as a writer. I would think that kids who grow up typing will become adapted to using *that* as their main source of idea flow. When we were in school typing was not taught until 7th grade, and we spent years articulating thoughts, writing stories, and learning to write essays by hand before 7th grade. Had we started out typing at the same time as learning to write by hand I imagine we’d have developed the necessary brain connections to make use of that skill as our main source of articulation.
    P.S. For those who enjoy the aesthetics and personal touch of cursive handwriting and also enjoy the convenience and speed of typing, watch this video: http://youtu.be/pHl8UEewbN8

    • chavisory said,

      I’ve seen that suggested before as well, that kids who grow up typing may be able to get the same thing out of it, but I’m not so sure. Some probably would. Others probably wouldn’t. For the former group, I’d be worried about a generation that didn’t know how to write except by computer; that seems a recipe for disaster in any number of ways. And for the latter, I’d be heartbroken to think what those kids might never be able to know about their own abilities. Especially kids of low-income families who are unlikely to have computers at home.

      I’m not about forcing people into either mode; I’m a big fan of teaching everything and letting kids develop what really works for them, and obviously keyboards and computers have been a godsend for people with disabilities that impede speech or handwriting. To me, truly teaching literacy is about making all avenues available, and to eliminate cursive is almost inevitably going to cut off a certain number of kids from what might be their best form of expression.

  4. Grumpa Joe said,

    Three cheers for cursive, although there is nothing worse than cursive that is totally illegible. I agreed with all of your arguments. I like to “write” by hand when I want my letters to be personal, and meaningful. It makes me believe that I cared enough to take the time to “write” the words.
    I also write more eloquently than I speak, therefore I write. My arguments can be made on paper and reformulated into meaningful thoughts unlike extemporaneous speech. My brain is not in synch with my mouth. The words don’t come, and the conversation or argument dies.
    Great post.

    • chavisory said,

      Thanks! Man, I had to deal with trying to read the handwriting of college students on some standardized forms not long ago, and their PRINTING is totally illegible! And I’m not talking the occasional kid with congenitally bad handwriting, I’m talking 90% of them. It’s seriously a little scary.

  5. I think we should keep cursive around. I print most of the time, because I’ve gotten my printing to look so awesome (excuse me while I pat myself on the back) that it practically looks like typing anyway. But when something is emotional, I *have* to use cursive. For years I kept everything print-only for the sake of uniformity, but I have since gotten much more comfortable with the idea of mixing it up, even sometimes on the same page. The manner in which something is conveyed *absolutely* affects ones ability to convey it, at least for those of us who struggle with connecting emotions to words.

    -The other Emma

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