By Douglas Gerwin
The last time I wrote out a major-length paper by hand was during the early 1980s, when I was working on my graduate dissertation. Under pressure of time, I disciplined myself to compose some ten pages per day––or 50 pages a week––and in eight weeks or so I had completed a first draft of the manuscript. To speed the process, I placed a typewriter at my side, so that with minimum distraction I could keep a running tab of footnote references and supplementary remarks. But despite impending deadlines, I opted to write––at times to scribble––the dissertation itself in long-hand.
At the time, it was quite evident to me that the tone and style arising from long-hand cursive (or sometimes my short-handed approximation of cursive) were quite different from the more clipped tone and style of the typed footnotes. At some level I was aware that linking one letter to another by hand was helping me construct an argument in which one thought was linked (seamlessly, I hoped my dissertation advisor would say) to the next. Footnoting, by contrast, did not require that kind of textual weaving. Only after a final edit did I undertake the weary task of converting the written manuscript into a 391-page typed document.
Were I to engage in such a project today, I would doubtless opt for the convenience of a computer––and not least because of that convenient button labeled “delete”, to say nothing of the time-savers “cut” and “paste”. In retrospect, however, I am grateful that I was obliged to compose that thesis on a notepad, rather than on an electronic Notebook.
Nevertheless, I read with alarm that, following the advent of the government-mandated Common Core standards, cursive has been dropped as a curricular requirement in many schools (to be precise, Common Core remains silent on this issue), though several states––among them California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee––have been giving cursive another look. One reason to be alarmed is that, according to William Klemm, a neuro-scientist at Texas A&M University, writing in cursive makes kids smarter.
“Cursive writing, compared to printing,” he concludes, is more beneficial “because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual-recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.” His is not the only voice to speak up for the merits of cursive writing, though there are others who challenge his conclusions. But the National Association of State Boards of Education stands with Professor Klemm: it has issued a report saying that cursive helps develop memory, fine motor skills, and better expression.
Writing by hand also improves memory and comprehension among adults. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, college students who take notes long-hand write less but remember more than those who type their notes on a laptop.
However, even those elementary schools that retain cursive in their curriculum are giving their students less time to practice it. Catholic schools, famous for emphasizing penmanship, are devoting considerably less class time these days to this skill. Instead of getting it for a half hour or so a day––or roughly 7 1/2 hours per week––students may get 15 minutes’ practice three times a week. That comes to less than an hour a week, or a tenth of the time once allotted to this exercise.
Meanwhile, an online poll by Harris Interactive reported that 79 percent of adult respondents––and even 68 percent of kids, ages 8-18––felt cursive should still be taught in school. Nearly half the adults polled (49%) and more than a third of the kids (35%) felt that practicing reading and writing in cursive improved literacy.
Regardless of what schools decide about their curricula, most children these days begin to peck their way around a computer keyboard long before they enter school and years before they are handed their first pen (if indeed they are handed a pen in school at all). And even when––in some cases we may need to say “if”––they pick up a pen, a growing number of children don’t even attempt to learn cursive, since they are allowed to remain with printing as they exercise their writing skills.
What does this developmental switch––from writing or printing first to typing or keyboarding first––imply for future generations of writers––and of thinkers? At a superficial level one could say that they will not be able to decipher great documents, such as the U.S. Constitution or scribbled notes from a friend or a grandparent. In a sense, they may find themselves slipping into a state of quasi-literacy, as happened famously during the murder trial of Trayvon Martin, when one of the witnesses was handed a note while giving testimony but could not decipher it because it was written in cursive.
Much more troubling, however, than the risk of reduced literacy among the rising generations of children may be the effect that a lack of cursive practice will have on the fluency of their thinking. To be sure, it is hard to establish a causal link between fluent or steady orthography and fluent or coherent thinking, but I have heard English teachers swear they can tell from the coherence of their students’ essays whether they were composed by hand or at a keyboard.
No less an authority on the merits of keyboarding than Clive Thompson, author of the book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, confessed in an interview that when it came to organizing his thoughts, he felt the need to set aside his electronic writing tools in favor of pen and paper. “To organize the structure of an argument, I really need paper,” he admitted. “I can use all those wonderful swoopy arrows to connect stuff.”
In Waldorf schools, pupils famously develop their printing initially out of pictures and images––deriving the letter “s” from the shape of a snake, perhaps, or the letter “m” from the contours of a distant mountain. At the same time, they are engaged in the discipline of repetitive form drawing. By fourth grade they are introduced to the more advanced skill of cursive handwriting, which in some Waldorf schools is cultivated right into high school with courses in calligraphy and illuminated capitals.
This approach to writing is based on the idea that what we do with our hands gives shape to what we can do with our brains. Or to say it even more radically (and now with the endorsement of research into the new science of “neuro-plasticity”): what we do with our hands, especially during our early years, actually gives shape to the brain itself.
Comparative research remains to be undertaken, therefore, on the way a child’s higher mental powers are helped or hindered by the practice or avoidance of cursive handwriting, especially during the elementary grades. But we should not have to wait on large-scale or long-term studies to recognize the value to be gained from flowing cursive movements across a blank page, compared to the percussive staccato movements across a keyboard.
Put most simply: children have a right to write.