It was a great guide, the scholar informed the 14 others within the undergraduate seminar I used to be educating, and it included quite a lot of glorious illustrations, corresponding to pictures of related Civil Conflict manuscripts. However, he continued, these weren’t very useful to him, due to course he couldn’t learn cursive.
Had I heard him appropriately? Who else can’t learn cursive? I requested the category. The reply: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Much more. What did they do about signatures? They’d invented them by combining vestiges of no matter cursive instruction they might have had with inventive squiggles and prospers. Amused by my astonishment, the scholars provided reflections concerning the place—or absence—of handwriting of their lives. As an alternative of the Civil Conflict previous, we discovered ourselves exploring a unique set of historic modifications. In my ignorance, I turned their pupil in addition to a form of historic artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a reworked world.
In 2010, cursive was omitted from the brand new nationwide Frequent Core requirements for Okay–12 training. The scholars in my class, and their friends, have been then someplace in elementary faculty. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and classes in “keyboarding” assumed an ever extra distinguished place within the classroom. Most of my college students remembered getting not more than a yr or so of considerably desultory cursive coaching, which was typically pushed apart by a rising emphasis on “educating to the take a look at.” Now in school, they characterize the vanguard of a cursiveless world.
Though I used to be unaware of it on the time, the 2010 Frequent Core coverage on cursive had generated an uproar. Jeremiads concerning the impending decline of civilization appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Occasions, and elsewhere. Defenders of script argued variously that data of cursive was “a fundamental proper,” a key connection between hand and mind, an important type of self-discipline, and a elementary expression of identification. Its disappearance would characterize a craven submission to “the tyranny of ‘relevance.’ ”
Inside a decade, cursive’s embattled advocates had succeeded in passing measures requiring some form of cursive instruction in additional than 20 states. On the similar time, the battle for cursive turned a part of a rising, politicized nostalgia for a misplaced previous. In 2016, Louisiana’s state senators reminded their constituents that the Declaration of Independence had been written in cursive and cried out “America!” as they unanimously voted to revive handwriting instruction throughout the state.
But the decline in cursive appears inevitable. Writing is, in spite of everything, a expertise, and most applied sciences are eventually surpassed and changed. As Tamara Plakins Thornton demonstrates in her guide Handwriting in America, it has at all times been affected by altering social and cultural forces. In 18th-century America, writing was the area of the privileged. By regulation or customized, the enslaved have been prohibited from literacy virtually in every single place. In New England, practically all women and men might learn; within the South, which had not developed an equal system of frequent faculties, a far decrease share of even the white inhabitants might achieve this. Writing, although, was a lot much less widespread—taught individually and sparingly in colonial America, most frequently to males of standing and accountability and to ladies of the higher courses. Women and men even discovered completely different scripts—a decorative hand for women, and an unadorned, extra purposeful kind for the male world of energy and commerce.
The primary half of the nineteenth century noticed a dramatic improve within the variety of ladies capable of write. By 1860, greater than 90 % of the white inhabitants in America might each learn and write. On the similar time, romantic and Victorian notions of subjectivity steadily enhanced the perceived connection between handwriting and identification. Penmanship got here to be seen as a marker and expression of the self—of gender and sophistication, to make certain, but additionally of deeper parts of character and soul. The notion of a signature as a novel illustration of a selected particular person steadily got here to be enshrined within the regulation and accepted as official authorized proof.
By the flip of the twentieth century, the typewriter had turn out to be sufficiently established to immediate the primary widespread declarations of the obsolescence of handwriting. However it might be an extended demise. In 1956, Look journal pronounced handwriting “out-of-date,” but cursive nonetheless claimed a safe place within the curriculum for many years.
Given a present technology of scholars through which so few can learn or write cursive, one can’t assume it is going to ever once more function an efficient type of communication. I requested my college students concerning the implications of what that they had informed me, focusing first on their expertise as college students. No, most of those historical past college students admitted, they might not learn manuscripts. In the event that they have been assigned a analysis paper, they sought topics that relied solely on printed sources. One pupil reshaped his senior honors thesis for this objective; one other reported that she didn’t pursue her curiosity in Virginia Woolf for an project that may have concerned studying Woolf’s handwritten letters. Sooner or later, cursive should be taught to students the best way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is right this moment.
I continued questioning: Didn’t professors make handwritten feedback on their papers and exams? Most of the college students discovered these illegible. Typically they might ask a instructor to decipher the feedback; extra typically they simply ignored them. Most school, particularly after the distant instruction of the pandemic, now grade on-line. However I questioned what number of of my colleagues have been dutifully providing handwritten observations with none clue that they might by no means be learn.
What about handwriting in your private lives? I went on. One pupil reported that he needed to ask his mother and father to “translate” handwritten letters from his grandparents. I requested the scholars in the event that they made grocery lists, stored journals, or wrote thank-you or condolence letters. Virtually all stated sure. Virtually all stated they did so on laptops and telephones or typically on paper in block letters. For a lot of younger folks, “handwriting,” as soon as basically synonymous with cursive, has come to imply the painstaking printing they flip to when necessity dictates.
Throughout my years as Harvard president, I regarded the handwritten observe as a form of superpower. I wrote a whole bunch of them and stored a pile of observe playing cards within the upper-left-hand drawer of my desk. They supplied a approach to attain out and say: I’m noticing you. This message of thanks or congratulations or sympathy comes not from some employees individual or some machine however instantly from me. I touched it and hope it touches you. Now I’m wondering what number of recipients of those messages couldn’t learn them.
“There’s something charming about receiving a handwritten observe,” one pupil acknowledged. Did he imply charming like an vintage curiosity? Charming within the sense of magical in its capability to create bodily connections between human minds? Charming as in establishing an aura of the unique, the distinctive, and the genuine? Maybe all of those. One’s handwriting is an expression, an providing of self. Crowds nonetheless throng athletes, politicians, and rock stars for autographs. We now have not but deserted our attraction to handwriting as a illustration of presence: George Washington, or Beyoncé, or David Ortiz wrote right here!
There may be quite a lot of the previous we’re higher off with out, simply as there may be a lot to have fun within the units which have served because the automobiles of cursive’s demise. However there are risks in cursive’s loss. College students will miss the joy and inspiration that I’ve seen them expertise as they work together with the bodily embodiment of ideas and concepts voiced by an individual lengthy since silenced by loss of life. Handwriting could make the previous appear virtually alive within the current.
Within the papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., I as soon as discovered a small fragment along with his scribbled title and his father’s tackle. Holmes had emphasised the importance of this small piece of paper by attaching it to a bigger web page with an extended observe—additionally in his personal hand—which he saved as a relic for posterity. He had written the phrases in 1862 on the battlefield of Antietam, the place he had been wounded, he defined, and had pinned the paper to his uniform lest he turn out to be one of many Civil Conflict’s numerous Unknown.
However typically handwritten paperwork inform tales that their creators neither meant nor understood. James Henry Hammond maintained a ledger through which he stored scrawled information of the births and deaths of the enslaved inhabitants on his South Carolina plantation. As a result of he included the names of the newborns’ mother and father and sometimes some further commentary, it was potential for me to reconstruct household ties amongst generations of individuals forbidden to maintain their very own written historical past. At one level, Hammond bought an 8-year-old boy named Sam Jones to work in the home, altering his title to “Wesley” within the course of. Practically three many years later, Hammond recorded the start of a son to Wesley—a baby to whom Wesley had given the title “Sam Jones.” As he recorded the child’s start, Hammond was in all chance unaware of Sam/Wesley’s act of reminiscence and resistance. Greater than a century and a half later, we will nonetheless say Sam Jones’s title.
All of us, not simply college students and students, might be affected by cursive’s loss. The lack to learn handwriting deprives society of direct entry to its personal previous. We’ll turn out to be reliant on a small group of educated translators and specialists to report what historical past—together with the paperwork and papers of our personal households—was about. The unfold of literacy within the early fashionable West was pushed by folks’s need to learn God’s phrase for themselves, to be empowered by an expertise of unmediated connection. The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We’re shedding a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.
On the final day of sophistication, a pupil got here as much as me with a replica of certainly one of my books and requested me to signal it. I wrote an inscription that included not simply his title and mine, however thanks for his many contributions to the seminar. Then I requested, somewhat wistfully, if he’d like me to learn it to him.
This text seems within the October 2022 print version with the headline “Cursive Is Historical past.” While you purchase a guide utilizing a hyperlink on this web page, we obtain a fee. Thanks for supporting The Atlantic.