Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is Cursive Obsolete?

I was startled to read that cursive handwriting is disappearing from school curricula. According to the July 2012 issue of National Geographic, as of early this year 45 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, that do not include instruction in cursive writing. In some cases teaching cursive is left up to individual school districts, but it is no longer required. The National Geographic article also reported from a 2010 survey that 85% of college students printed when they wrote. A teacher I know was recently shocked to discover that one of her students couldn't read the comments on her assignment because the student couldn't read cursive.

I understand that using word processing programs on computers makes writing, and particularly editing faster. I know that the need for writing things out by hand is less than in those pre-digital days. I'm sure many people probably don't blink an eye at hearing that cursive is going the way of the dodo. But, as a genealogist, the first thing that popped into my head was “who will be able to read all of the letters, journals and other documents I have collected and saved from my family?” If I want my daughter to be able to read them it looks like I may have to teach her myself. Although this is a few years away I can already hear her saying “but mom, why do I need to learn this if no one uses it anymore?” I doubt “so you can read my journal starting when I was a teenager” will carry much weight.

More important than this, though, is the message that not teaching cursive sends. If this skill is deemed no longer necessary does it mean that all of the historical documents, letters, journals and other papers in our past that were written in cursive are no longer worth reading? If we are not teaching the next generation the ability to understand these papers then it seems to me that we are writing them off as unimportant? Until a technology similar to optical character recognition (OCR) is developed for reading cursive I think someone still needs to be able to read it. Even if a computer program is developed to decipher cursive, I imagine it wouldn't be very good considering the diversity in cursive writing between one individual and another.

Just because writing (and reading) cursive may no longer be absolutely necessary, I believe it is still a useful skill. Here are some of the reasons proposed for continuing to teach cursive.
Signatures are still required on many documents.
Simpler handwriting is easier to forge.
Learning to write in cursive helps develop fine motor skills in the hands.
Learning cursive teaches mental discipline.

If my daughter can't read the documents I have saved then what is the point in keeping them? I'm not ready to throw them in the recycling bin just yet, but I do wonder what will become of these things I have moved from place to place and collected from family members. I don't have a good answer, other than somehow convincing my daughter that there is some merit in learning cursive other than reading all of the stuff in mom's boxes. I suppose the other option is to start transcribing everything myself, but I'm definitely not up to that task right now.

My mother suggested that I could try to “sell” cursive to my daughter by telling her she can use it as a secret code that few of her peers will be able to understand. The only problem could be finding a friend who knows cursive or is willing to devote the time to learn it. Maybe I can convince her that if she can read cursive she will increase her chance of getting a job (as an archivist or historian), but this probably won't be a good incentive for a third-grader. I guess I'll have to stick with the “secret code” argument.

I'm curious if anyone else has thoughts about this?

Rizzo, J. Disappearing Act. July 2012. National Geographic. Vol 222(1).

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