06 June 2018

Is the Handwriting on the Wall...for Cursive Writing?

Intro Copy

Modern technology has changed the way we view the importance of handwriting. While we used to communicate with handwritten notes and letters, emails and text messages are quicker and easier ways to keep in touch. If we want to make a grocery list, or jot down a reminder, there is no need to search for paper and pen—our smartphones are always nearby. We don’t even need to learn to sign our names—and indeed many young people today can’t sign their names in cursive handwriting. Our bills can be paid online (no need to write a check) and most documents can now be signed electronically. It was recently announced that the major credit card companies will no longer require customers to sign their names when making a purchase with a credit card. However, despite the trend away from handwriting, researchers and education professionals are cautioning that handwriting is an important skill that is still essential in this age of computers and keyboarding. Here are some highlights from A Brief History of Handwriting that show how the importance of handwriting has evolved over time.
  • 600s: Quill pens and parchment paper take hold in Europe. Drippy ink discourages pen lifting, hence cursive.
  • 1440s: Johannes Gutenberg's printing press forces scribes to pivot to teaching penmanship.
  • 1776: John Hancock's "John Hancock" appears prominently on the Declaration of Independence.
  • 1848: Educator Platt Rogers Spencer urges pupils to contemplate nature's curves while learning his ornate script, soon to be the hand of choice for merchants (including Ford and Coca-Cola) and schools in most states.
  • 1880: Alonzo Cross' patented "stylographic pen" holds its own ink.
  • 1894: With handwriting under threat by typewriters, Austin Palmer introduces a smaller, faster writing style, taught via militaristic "drills." His 1912 textbook on the Palmer Method sells more than 1 million copies. (Spencerian script is history.)
  • 1913: Congress greenlights the use of handwriting as forensic evidence in court.
  • 1958: The Bic ballpoint hits US stores, turning pens--once luxury goods--into a cheap commodity.
  • 1961: The signature of US Treasurer Elizabeth Rudel Smith on paper currency invites public scorn: Her "t"s are "crossed belatedly, like a feminine afterthought," snarks a Chicago Tribune writer. The New York Times seizes on the occasion to bemoan the "lost art of handwriting."
  • 1984: The National Council of Teachers of English condemns the practice of making naughty kids write lines, because it "causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success."
  • 2010: Common Core standards, soon to be adopted by most states, emphasize early typing skills but make no mention of cursive. Parents and educators flip out. “They're not teaching cursive writing," conservative TV host Glenn Beck thunders, “because the easiest way to make somebody a slave is dumb them down.”
  • 2012: Scientists find that the brains of preliterate kids respond like a reader's brain when they write their ABCs, but not when they type or trace the letters; another research team reports that college students who transcribed lectures on their laptops recalled more information than those who took notes by hand.
What will come next in the history of handwriting? Direct your students to SIRS Issues Researcher's Cursive Writing Leading Issue, where they can learn more about the value of handwriting in today’s society and weigh in on the debate over whether cursive writing should be part of the school curriculum.