A “Legacy” System

As I stated in my previous post, the decline of the handwritten document as a “finished, polished” text was brought about by the American mindset of a series of generations, more or less ranging from the late 19th century until about 1985, which I often refer to as the “Typewriter Age”.  The people of the Typewriter Age at least recognised the beauty of well-formed longhand and saw it as a necessary skill for basic literacy.  Its place in communication, however, had been relegated to the less important realm of  note-taking, personal correspondence, keeping a journal or diary, shopping lists, and the like.

One extreme position on handwriting instruction in elementary schools has emerged recently that challenges the need of composing any text at all, in real time, on paper using pen, pencil or typewriter.  For these extremists, composition using a real or virtual keyboard is all that is ever needed.

Even at institutions that make it [handwriting instruction] a strong priority, such as the private Brearley School in New York City, “some parents say, ‘I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this,’” says Linda Boldt, the school’s head of learning skills.
The Wall Street Journal, 5 October 2010

For them, handwriting in general is a “legacy system”, completely out of step with today’s digital world.

Such hostility to putting ink on paper was completely unknown to the generations of the Typewriter Age. Now a whole new set of unsupported erroneous claims have started to surface online:

  1. Assuming handwriting has a place at all in today’s world, it offers no advantage over manuscript (block letters, “printing”, ball-and-stick letters) and is just as fast a cursive.
  2. Cursive writing singles out left-handed people putting them at a severe disadvantage.
  3. Learning cursive confuses children since it doesn’t look like printed matter in books, and is thus, wasted time in the classroom when there are now new tech subjects that have more benefit for pupils in today’s high tech world.

Recent news articles citing research at the University of Indiana indicate that teaching children handwriting at an early age stimulates certain brain functions and development that can be of enormous benefit to them for learning in general:

In addition to having the benefit of forming new neural pathways facilitating a more productive, i.e. less passive, approach to letter formation and recognition, it seems illogical that manuscript can ever be as fast as cursive.  When I was in the CELTA program, one of our senior teacher trainers, Jeff Mohamed, mentioned the benefit of teaching students cursive, “if they ever wish to be able to write quickly enough to take effective notes.”

As far as cursive writing singling out left-handed writers, this is the statement of people looking for an excuse to avoid learning cursive.  There are perhaps a billion people in the world, the vast majority of them right-handed since Islam prohibits eating with the left hand and shuns writing God’s words with the left hand, as the left hand is to be used primarily for touching ritually impure things, who write a form of broken cursive, the Arabic script, from right-to-left.  So this is functionally the same as a left-handed person writing a Latin-based alphabet in cursive from left-to-write.  I’m in daily contact with native Arabs, Pakistanis, and Farsi-speaking people who are right-handed and write from right-to-left and I’ve never heard this whining from any of them.

Most people are not old enough remember that teaching cursive first, before ball-and-stick, manuscript letters was the norm in this country  (See the Resources section Teaching Strategies: First Cursive, then Print).  My oldest son learned cursive first and is ahead of his class in how fast he can read.  These posts on the Advice about Handwriting section of the Berkeley Parents Network confirm my experience of the Cursive First approach:

Cursive handwriting in K or 1?

We came from cultures where cursive handwriting is taught before manuscript. [. . .] We also realized that the transition from manuscript to cursive in the second or third grade is harder than beginning in K or first grade with the cursive handwriting. That is a cultural value that we’d like to preserve in our family [ . . .]

I know that the East Bay French American School (Ecole Bilingue) starts kids out learning cursive handwriting before printing. I was quite amazed to learn that this is actually easier for children to do. Fran

My three girls attended the same Montessori school starting at age 2 and into the elementary years (the Renaissance School in Dimond District of Oakland). The first two learned block lettering first and then moved to cursive which was a hurdle (but not insurmountable, and their cursive over time has improved). The third child learned cursive first in preschool/K and at 6 years old, her cursive is beautiful. The children still end up learning block because most reading books are in block, but our school has been trying to locate more early reader books in cursive to reinforce that lettering at the young age. [. . .]

When the school said that my youngest would learn cursive first, I was concerned that it would affect her reading “block” books, but the school mentioned some evidence about a more natural progression from cursive to block (I can’t remember the details anymore and it is probably similar to your cultural philosophy). In the end, I have observed with my child that learning to write cursive first was NOT a problem in terms of reading “block” books… in case anyone is wondering. Janna


What caused the decline of cursive handwriting?

In the very popular post Is Cursive Obsolete? one respondent unknowingly voices an opinion that so precisely highlights the mindset of American society.  A mindset that is even shared by the very people who love cursive handwriting and seek to preserve it:

Any writing that’s important will be typed up before it’s considered finished.

Mark Twain was perhaps the first well-known author to popularise the idea of the typewriter as a writer’s primary tool for getting words on paper, although it was most likely not his intention:

Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity-breeding little joker.
Letter, 19 March 1875

…I will now claim–until dispossessed–that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature…The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells…He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.
The First Writing Machines

Later such authors as E.E. Cummings, William S. Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway, among many others, would further underscore the association in the minds of Americans of machine-generated texts with “finished, polished” literature.

The fate of cursive handwriting was already set before 1910.  If a text written in a good hand was as important as the same exact text written on a typewriter, how could 89 separate typewriter manufacturers exist in the United States in 1909?

I sometimes wonder if this handwritten document would still receive the same celebrity status it has today if had been written on a Dell PC with Microsoft Word, i.e. today’s standard issue text authoring equipment of the federal government.

The cursive style I was taught

The cursive we were taught in public schools during the latter part of the 1960s looked almost exactly like this:

With the exception of the capital X, this is exactly how I write today.  I always found the precision alignment of two curved strokes (as written in this example) too tedious and form my capital X normally by creating the intersection of two, more or less, straight lines.

Sample written on virtuo 20 lbs. white paper (available at OfficeMax in 8½x11 or 5×8 pads; white or ivory) using a Pelikan M205 Demonstrator with Pelikan 4001 ink, Brilliant-Brown.