by Bob Hazlett
In the introduction to his book Good as News , my friend Alain Brunet records this thought:
“Being mindful of possibly losing my cursive handwriting ability is what prompted me to begin writing.”
After further explanation, he goes on to say:
“In a standard size school notebook, I filled a page this way every morning while having breakfast. After writing yesterday’s date at the top, I numbered each page and filled it with about 300 words. This mindset allowed me to be a little creative and helped me to persevere for 1,000 days without skipping a single one.”
Alain’s words got me thinking about the word ‘write.’ First off, it is a verb, an action word. Through most of human history it was defined as using an implement to record a thought onto some medium; a chisel on a piece of stone, a stick on a cave wall, a scribe on a wax tablet, a quill pen on parchment, pen or pencil on paper. All of that required a common set of characters—letters, words, and rules of usage – in short language – so that the thought transmitted by one can be received by another. Also required was that those symbols have a verbal equivalent so that the thought can be communicated orally.
In the twentieth century, we began to use machines to assist in the recording and transmitting of thoughts – telegraph, telephone, typewriter, and then the computer. With the typewriter, we started replacing handwriting skills with keyboarding skills.
Now schools have replaced cursive writing with keyboard/computer training to the lament of many. The cursive alphabet, white letters and white lines on black cardboard that stretched high up across the front of the classroom is no more. To those who protest, I would ask simply: “During the past year, how many hours have you spent writing notes and letters versus keyboarding on your computer or thumbing on your smartphone?”
The job of the schools is to prepare a labor force. Thus, they need to teach the skills our children will need in the future, not the skills you used in the past. The frame around all of this is available time . Two thousand years ago there were twenty-four hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Today there are still only twenty-four hours in a day and 365 days in a year. To teach something new, something old must go. We move forward, not backward.
At the same time, the body of human knowledge has increased beyond the capacity of our brain to contain it all. So, the skill of finding information has replaced the skill of knowing information. The ability to use the computer is key here as well. The stodgy old building full of books is replaced by this small device on my desk connected to the world’s information and knowledge by invisible electromagnetic waves. I protest the decay and disappearance of the library. It is a place I have a sincere affinity for. So why don’t I use it more? Guilty.
I too dismay at losing my cursive writing skills. While not beautiful, my handwriting in bygone days was not shameful. Not so now. Whether due to age or lack of practice, or probably both, my penmanship is a sorry sight. I think about exercising my handwriting more, recalling a goal I once had to write a story in longhand, in ink, on plain unlined paper, with no strike-outs – a good story, written perfectly the first time. That won’t happen.
Capturing ideas into words is a rational act. Doing it well creates a thing of beauty, doing it in cursive creates a work of art. I can’t imagine seeing our Declaration of Independence in block type. I suspect that what Thomas Jefferson gave to the copy house was a messy draft, full of ink blots, misspellings, and scratch-outs. From that, copywriters created the work of art – at least fourteen originals, more I suspect. One for the King of England and one for each of the thirteen colonies. Each signer had to sign his name at least fourteen times. I wonder how closely alike those originals were and whether there were any spelling or word differences among them. Finally, which one if any became the one preserved for posterity, that we now recognize as ‘the original.’
Cursive writing says a lot about the writer. Handwriting analysis has become a well-developed science. When you write in cursive, you tell more about yourself than just the thoughts you are expressing.
Here is the nagging question about handwriting in cursive or otherwise: what do I do with it? Today there is no reasonable process to transmit handwritten material to anyone, anywhere, for any reason. Private notes to another individual being the only exception. Alain Brunet’s 1,000 handwritten pages had to go through the keyboard to become usable in his delightful book Good as News .
Alas, we don’t teach cursive writing in schools anymore. But neither do we teach spinning thread, blacksmithing, or how to load a musket. I think it’s called evolution.