Good riddance to rubbish writing

In Gen Z never learned cursive. The effects of this are more widespread than you think (which references an October 2022 Atlantic article, Gen Z Never Learned To Read Cursive), the author describes the potential effects of discontinuing cursive writing instruction. In truth, the first article mentioned just expands a bit on one or two of the points made in the Atlantic article.

A note before I continue. Cursive is actually any form of connected writing. What most Americans refer to as “cursive” is the Palmer Method script that was introduced in the early 20th century, that most of us learned to fear and loathe, and many of us (myself included) can’t write legibly today. In the text below, I use “cursive” to mean that Palmer Method and its variants.

The Palmer Method, by the way, is a refinement of the Spencerian Method of writing that was introduced in the 1840s. Both are teaching a method of writing that’s optimized for 17th century pens. A primary consideration is keeping the pen on the paper because every time the pen was lifted and then placed back onto the paper, the ink tended to blot. These methods go to sometimes absurd lengths to keep the pen on the paper, even when doing so is less than optimum. The introduction of the inexpensive mass-produced ball point pen eliminated the ink blotting problem and thus the necessity to always keep the pen on the paper. But the script lives on.

The big complaint about no longer teaching cursive is that “the past is presented to us indirectly.” That is, because historical documents are written in script that students aren’t taught to read and write, they have to depend on transcription if they want to read the documents. There’s also some complaint that kids won’t be able to read letters from grandma.

And it’s true: without instruction and practice, cursive writing is difficult or impossible to read. Fortunately, it takes about a week to learn how to read it. Maybe a bit of practice after that, but if a child knows how to read block printing, learning to read the cursive script that’s been the mainstay of elementary writing instruction for a century is very easy.

In addition, the cursive script that’s been taught since the early 1900s isn’t even the same script that was used in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most oft-cited historical document cited in this argument, was written in Round hand, a script that originated in England in the 17th century. Learning to read modern cursive writing certainly helps in reading that document, but it still requires a bit more puzzling out.

Point is, the important historical documents all have been rendered in a typewritten font. There’s little or nothing to be gained for most people in reading the originals. There’s the incredibly weak argument that scholars will have to be taught cursive like they’re taught Elizabethan, Medieval, or ancient Cuneiform script. My response is, “duh.” Digging deeply into the past requires specialized skills. The ability to read cursive today is just a little bit more important than knowing how to hitch a horse to a buggy.

The “past is presented indirectly” argument for learning cursive writing just doesn’t fly. It’s as relevant to day-to-day life as the idiotic argument that those who can’t drive a car with manual transmission are somehow not “real” drivers. Ranks right up there with the, “when I was a boy, we had to trudge through three feet of snow, in the dark, uphill both ways to use the bathroom” stories we laugh about.

To be fair, there are benefits of learning cursive. First, it’s much faster than block printing, and there is that ability to read letters from grandma. It helps in developing fine motor skills, and studies show that students with dyslexia find learning cursive helps with the decoding process. However, people with dysgraphia are hindered by being forced to write in cursive.

Although I haven’t had to depend on my ability to write in cursive for at least 40 years, I do agree that many people must be able to write legibly and more quickly than they can with just block printing. But we should be teaching kids a different method. There are other connected writing systems that are easier to learn, faster, and easier to write legibly than the antiquated loopy Palmer Method that was designed 100 years ago for writing with a quill pen: a technology that was obsolete before the Palmer Method was introduced. (The ball point pen was invented in the 1880s.) For example, Getty-Dubay Italic, introduced in 1976, is much easier to read and write, and doesn’t require the loops and other forms that were necessary in older scripts to prevent the ink from blotting. There are other, similar, writing styles that are optimized for today’s writing instruments.

Whether those newer methods carry with them the benefits of developing fine motor skills and assistance to dyslexic students is an open question. I think it likely. I also suspect that it would have less of a negative impact on those with dysgraphia because the letter forms are so similar to the printed letter forms. As for letters from grandma, that’s becoming irrelevant, too. At 62, I’m older than a lot of grandmas and I’ll tell you from experience that a lot of them write cursive as well and as often as I do: illegibly and almost never. Letters from grandma that are written in cursive will pretty much cease to exist in my lifetime.

It’s true that trying to write those modern scripts using a 17th century quill pen would be as disastrous as taking a horse and buggy on an Interstate highway. Sometimes you have to discard old things and embrace the unquestionable benefits of new technology. Unless you like having to check for black widow spiders after trudging through the snow to the outhouse.