My husband emailed me something from The Atlantic the other day, accompanied by the comment, “Here’s your next column.”
The article was about the death of cursive handwriting. It was a rich, exhaustive essay, and when I finished reading it, I couldn’t imagine what more could possibly be said on the matter. It seemed the definitive nail in cursive’s coffin as well as its quintessential eulogy.
The piece was written by history professor – and former Harvard president – Drew Gilpin Faust, who had recently learned that a majority of the students in her undergraduate seminar couldn’t read cursive. The revelation had come during a class discussion of a book about the Civil War. One of her students said he’d enjoyed it, but that its illustrations of wartime documents weren’t very helpful since, “of course,” he couldn’t read cursive. Stunned, Dr. Faust asked for a show of hands – who else couldn’t read cursive? – and about 2/3 of the class raised theirs.
How did we get here?
Remember Common Core? Those controversial national education standards that everybody was arguing about back in 2010? Well, at least half the states have now abandoned those standards, but not before they left their mark. Apparently, cursive was omitted from Common Core in 2010 and never quite made a comeback.
“The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school,” writes Faust. “Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in ‘keyboarding’ assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on ‘teaching to the test.’ Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world.”
After reading this, I called up my own member of that vanguard, currently matriculating at Clemson, to get her take on the situation. I couldn’t quite recall my daughter’s past experience with cursive. Not in any detail.
Amelia told me she remembered learning cursive in third grade – she thinks – but doesn’t remember there being too much emphasis on it. She said she can read cursive “if it’s normal” but not if it’s “real slanty and fancy, like old-people writing.” She confessed that she has a hard time reading historical documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. No biggie, right?
On the bright side – I think? – she prefers taking class notes on her iPad, with a stylus pen, instead of typing them on her keyboard. “When I type my notes, I feel like I don’t learn the material as well,” she told me. “Sometimes, I’ll look back over typed notes and I don’t even remember typing them.” She says writing them by hand makes the material “sink in” in a way that typing doesn’t. Is that because typing is just second nature to a GenZ’er, while writing demands focus and concentration? I honestly don’t know.
And here’s the rub. My daughter tends to print those notes on her iPad, instead of using cursive. “Unless the teacher’s talking really fast,” she says, in which case she sometimes switches over to a halting, broken script.
I’m not sure what all this means for the future, if anything.
Drew Gilpin Faust, as an historian, is deeply concerned that young people are losing their direct access to their own history, thus putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Her Atlantic article, entitled “GenZ Never Learned to Read Cursive,” asks in its subtitle, “How will they interpret the past?”
While sitting at my desk, pondering the enormity of that question – and wondering what I could possibly add to this topic – I kicked back in my office chair and my eyes lit on the wall behind my computer monitor. Mounted there is a beautifully-framed sheet of lined, yellow notebook paper – the kind you tear out of a legal pad – on which are written, in heartbreakingly familiar script, the words: Hey, sweet Margaret. I still love you best of all. Great love, Pat Conroy.
Now, lest you find that a scandalous bit of over-sharing, please understand that this is the kind of note Pat Conroy wrote to everybody in his orbit. He loved us all best of all. I have no worries that his wife Sandra will read this column and be appalled. In fact, my own husband is the one who had the note framed for me, soon after Pat’s death. It’s just one of many little dashed-off memos he’d occasionally include with my “to-do” list, when I was working for him as an editorial assistant/typist.
And now that we’ve cleared that up, my point is this: I would never have framed that note and hung it on my wall had it been typed. There’s something of Pat Conroy’s personality – his very soul – on that yellow page, and it goes way beyond mere words.
I may be the first person ever to use the phrase “mere words” in the same sentence with “Pat Conroy,” but you know what I’m saying. It’s not so much about the sentiment. It’s about the handwriting. And the signature.
Speaking of signatures . . . the young folks aren’t the only ones who’ve gone “off script.” Just the other day, Jeff and I were signing some business papers, and I realized, not for the first time, that I have absolutely no signature left. Not a “signature” signature, anyway. When I sign my name on a document anymore – which is increasingly rare – it’s an illegible scrawl. Which would be okay, if it were always the same illegible scrawl. But it’s not. I had to sign three separate papers that day, and I’m not sure any of those signatures bore even a family resemblance.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. And apparently, I’ve lost it. How that loss affects the rest of my life remains to be seen. I could imagine some troubling scenarios, but I’m trying to reduce my stress level, so I won’t. Fortunately, I have a “digital signature” that lives on my computer, but I don’t think I could replicate it now, by hand, if I tried. And I wonder: Having lost my unique, distinctive signature, have I lost a small part of what makes me . . . me?
“The spread of literacy in the early modern West was driven by people’s desire to read God’s word for themselves, to be empowered by an experience of unmediated connection,” writes Faust in the Atlantic. “The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We are losing a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.”
For students and scholars of history, the implications couldn’t be more clear. For the rest of us, the handwriting on the wall is a little harder to read, but in time, the loss may be every bit as profound.