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Today’s moment of senseless pedagogical nostalgia

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When outlining “The Case for Cursive,” a journalist ought to provide an actually compelling argument. The best substitute, it seems, runs something like this:

Might people who write only by printing — in block letters, or perhaps with a sloppy, squiggly signature — be more at risk for forgery? Is the development of a fine motor skill thwarted by an aversion to cursive handwriting? And what happens when young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?

In order:

  1. I don’t see why it would. Why standardized, grade-school instruction in cursive handwriting should be celebrated as a useful device in the war against forgery is beyond my comprehension in the era of electronic identity. More broadly, the assumption that cursive is more difficult to forge rests, I suspect, on the dubious premise that cursive script supplies a graphic fingerprint, an expression of individuality that surpasses than any other style of writing. I can’t imagine there’s much — if any — evidence to back up such a claim.
  2. Probably not. The Palmer Method — which I believe still serves as the deep background for (the obviously disintegrating) cursive handwriting instruction in the US — emphasized proximal muscle movements (e.g., shoulder and upper arm) rather than distal muscles on the assumption that fine motor skills would “evolve” from the stability provided by the larger muscles. But as I understand the literature, the relationship between proximal and distal muscle development isn’t entirely clear when it comes to handwriting, and — most importantly — there’s nothing particularly special about a cursive style that facilitates any of the motor advantages that are claimed for it. Handwriting in general is obviously still essential to education, and there are important links between legible handwriting and cognitive development, visual/perceptual acuity, motor control and planning, and academic performance and self esteem more broadly. But while writing still constitutes a huge percentage of what kids do in school, it’s certainly not the only means of developing fine motor skills.
  3. Only an archivist would care. There’s not much to say about this except that the author of this piece clearly needed to come up with a third reason to fret about the disappearance of cursive handwriting instruction. That this is what she came up with tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the severity of the crisis.

Now, I’m sure my views on cursive handwriting are shaped to significant degrees by the humiliation of being exiled to remedial handwriting class for several weeks during the 5th grade. A perennial “C” student in penmanship, I was neither practically assisted nor aesthetically inspired by the therapist’s suggestion that I imagine Mark Spitz gliding through the water as I helplessly stabbed at the paper in front of me. (This was 1981, mind you. How I was supposed to visualize Mark Spitz — who won most of his Olympic medals when I was a year old — during the pre-YouTube era is anyone’s guess. I suspect Eric Heiden would have been more comprehensible to me, at least as a metaphor.) In any event, my cursive skills continued to moulder through the years until at some point in high school we were quietly untethered from the style and allowed to submit our work in whatever fashion we chose. My handwriting continues to be one of our generation’s greater atrocities, but I can’t imagine I would have fared any better a century ago, when my teachers would have clubbed me on the shins for failing to articulate a proper upper-case “Q.”

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