Sunday, September 29, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Art

A couple weeks ago my writer and blogger friend Gordon posted about a couple of wing-nuts who were making him shake his head. One particular woo-woo of interest was Starre Vartan who was writing for the Mother Nature Network and has serious issues with the decline of cursive writing. Among other thoughts on the matter she had this to say: 

"They [children] won't be able to read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or anything written during the Civil War.  They're missing an entire portion of our country's history."

To which Gordon had a few things of his own to say. His thoughts are best summed up by the title of his post: There's this thing called "reality." You might want to check it out.

Given that a large portion of the history of writing has religious significance I'm actually quite surprised that Ms. Vartan didn't take the "if you don't write in cursive you're the spawn of the Devil" route but then again, maybe she's not quite a full fledged member of the Tea Party.

There was no app for that.

At any rate, we're not here to discuss how the lack of cursive is ruining the world. Or are we?

The art of writing goes back thousands of years. Longer if you consider things like hieroglyphs (which we won't). There is some debate surrounding this but let's just say that the first novel ever written was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485. The thing is, by this time the printing press was well established and while the book may have been written in script it was published using typography.

The way I see it, all cursive writing did was draw a line between the classes. If you couldn't read and write then you were worthless; either dirt poor or a slave, or both. If you could read and write then there was hope for you, but you were likely just part of the working class. If you could craft a beautiful line of perfect cursive text though, well, then you were extremely well educated and most likely well off financially. After all, you could afford to practice, practice, practice. All those quills, paper, and ink weren't cheap you know.

When public education became more prominent the whole idea of writing as a discipline made sense. Everything was written and everything had to be read. There needed to be a system in place to keep it all in order. Cursive writing to the rescue! Plus, it had the added benefit of giving the children a fabulous exercise to assist with their dexterity and develop part of their brain that would not normally get this much attention. My daughter was still being taught cursive writing a couple years ago, but I'm not so sure it will be around for my son a couple years from now.

I dream of the day I never have to practice this with my kid

I say good riddance.

As far as I can tell, the tablet computer is pretty much bringing an end to all of it. It only took 500 years to get from that first printing press to having a printing press at the fingertips of anyone who knows the alphabet. In the grand scheme of things, that's a pretty impressive achievement.

We're supposed to be moving forward, not the other direction. Teach kids to print neatly and recognize printed letters and you're teaching them to interact and understand the world as it is now and as it will be tomorrow. I'm a tactile guy and ideas flow more freely when I physically write them down. Plus, I tend to absorb more if I write it (apparently there's a reason we remember what we write), but it's a personal thing. There is absolutely no need for me to be concerned about the quality if I have the means to put it into some readable format for others if I need to.

The Tenth Circle of Hell: Cursive Writing
What I find more absurd is how the battle between touchscreen and qwerty came and went so quickly. Given people's history of digging their heels in on similar issues I was sure this debate would rage much longer and much more furiously than the whole cursive writing thing. It would appear that our friends at Blackberry appear to be the only ones still clinging to hope that the qwerty ship won't sink.

Have you ever seen a teenager on a touchscreen smart phone? We don't need to be teaching them cursive; handheld computers have taken care of that. We don't even need to be teaching them how to spell; autocorrect and overly relaxed (i.e. stupid) online dictionaries have taken care of that. We need to be teaching them how to look someone in the eye and have an actual conversation.

Besides, with fancy fonts like this, who needs penmanship? 
~ Andrew

4 comments:

  1. Well, I for one think its tragic. We are raising several generations of the laziest citizens that will ever be! NOT learn cursive? Its sounds like a bad joke although Im sure your correct, unfortunately. Writing beautifully in cursive is an art and ought to be practiced methodically. No matter how dependant we are on our tablets and so forth we all still need to send the odd note now and then. You suggestion that we all ought to print means we'd all be rather child like, yes? We all now wear jeans and sneakers to worship, we all only go by our first names ( Hi! Im jim! Im suzy!). Are we not to have anything dignified left for ourselves? Are we not to be adults at all. Lets just all burns our books too while were about it. After all we all have our "online libraries." maybe while were at it we can stop thinking altogether and have our computers think for us too.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Anon, and thanks for the comment.

      For me it's about effectively communicating. Certainly there's no reason you need a scripted word to convey a good message. Cursive is an art (your words) and in that regard there's a place for it in schools and in society in general - as art. As a form of communication and tool to convey information I think it stinks.

      Complaints can be written longhand, scanned, and emailed to afbutters at gmail dot com ;)

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  2. I learned proper penmanship starting with the sisters in Catholic school and then all my teachers in Virginia, at public school. Everyone comments on how neat my handwriting is, in both cursive and print, compared to my peers. Professors compliment me on it and complain about how hard it is to read other students' handwritten work. And, when polled, we discovered that those with the neatest writing were taught cursive and proper printing before we were taught to type at a keyboard.

    Sure we have tablets and kids all know how to type, but there is something profoundly elegant in the written word. There is nothing better than receiving a handwritten note, be it a thank you note or just a letter from a friend. Writing has carried us through many generations, it should not die now. You might think it archaic and unnecessary, but it has a purpose to serve. The dedication required to master printing and cursive is not excessive; it's a simple thing to learn if you are taught.

    What would happen if we didn't have computers, if they were not something that most people had? You would have letters, handwritten, and thought out. Anyone with access to a keyboard can say anything they want, which is fantastic; people across countries can communicate with ease. But the people with something to say get lost in the mass of unintelligent comments because of this.

    I see your point: typing and electronics are relevant today and I agree that people should be taught to use them...but they should be taught effectively. By teaching handwriting first, people learn to put more thought into their words.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Emily, and I appreciate your comment even more :)

      I think the handwritten word is important. If nothing else, as you say, it teaches patience and allows the author to compose their thoughts. Indeed, a handwritten note holds great value.

      But does it devalue if the written word is hand printed rather than done in cursive? I would argue in today's day and age the answer would be "not enough to notice".

      I would propose teaching how to print as part of core English classes early on and right through primary school; and teaching cursive writing, calligraphy, or other scripting as part of an art class in grade 7 and 8 (and optionally in high school).

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