It was a great ebook, the scholar advised the 14 others within the undergraduate seminar I used to be instructing, and it included quite a lot of wonderful illustrations, corresponding to pictures of related Civil Battle manuscripts. However, he continued, these weren’t very useful to him, due to course he couldn’t learn cursive.
Had I heard him accurately? Who else can’t learn cursive? I requested the category. The reply: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Much more. What did they do about signatures? They’d invented them by combining vestiges of no matter cursive instruction they might have had with artistic squiggles and prospers. Amused by my astonishment, the scholars supplied reflections in regards to the place—or absence—of handwriting of their lives. As a substitute of the Civil Battle previous, we discovered ourselves exploring a distinct set of historic modifications. In my ignorance, I turned their pupil in addition to a sort of historic artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a reworked world.
In 2010, cursive was omitted from the brand new nationwide Frequent Core requirements for Ok–12 schooling. The scholars in my class, and their friends, have been then someplace in elementary faculty. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and classes in “keyboarding” assumed an ever extra outstanding place within the classroom. Most of my college students remembered getting not more than a 12 months or so of considerably desultory cursive coaching, which was usually pushed apart by a rising emphasis on “instructing to the check.” Now in school, they signify the vanguard of a cursiveless world.
Though I used to be unaware of it on the time, the 2010 Frequent Core coverage on cursive had generated an uproar. Jeremiads in regards to the impending decline of civilization appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Occasions, and elsewhere. Defenders of script argued variously that information of cursive was “a fundamental proper,” a key connection between hand and mind, a vital type of self-discipline, and a basic expression of id. Its disappearance would signify a craven submission to “the tyranny of ‘relevance.’ ”
Inside a decade, cursive’s embattled advocates had succeeded in passing measures requiring some form of cursive instruction in additional than 20 states. On the similar time, the wrestle for cursive turned a part of a rising, politicized nostalgia for a misplaced previous. In 2016, Louisiana’s state senators reminded their constituents that the Declaration of Independence had been written in cursive and cried out “America!” as they unanimously voted to revive handwriting instruction throughout the state.
But the decline in cursive appears inevitable. Writing is, in any case, a know-how, and most applied sciences are eventually surpassed and changed. As Tamara Plakins Thornton demonstrates in her ebook Handwriting in America, it has all the time been affected by altering social and cultural forces. In 18th-century America, writing was the area of the privileged. By regulation or customized, the enslaved have been prohibited from literacy nearly in every single place. In New England, practically all women and men might learn; within the South, which had not developed an equal system of frequent faculties, a far decrease share of even the white inhabitants might accomplish that. Writing, although, was a lot much less widespread—taught individually and sparingly in colonial America, most frequently to males of standing and accountability and to girls of the higher courses. Women and men even realized completely different scripts—a decorative hand for girls, and an unadorned, extra useful type for the male world of energy and commerce.
The primary half of the nineteenth century noticed a dramatic improve within the variety of girls capable of write. By 1860, greater than 90 % of the white inhabitants in America might each learn and write. On the similar time, romantic and Victorian notions of subjectivity steadily enhanced the perceived connection between handwriting and id. Penmanship got here to be seen as a marker and expression of the self—of gender and sophistication, to make certain, but additionally of deeper parts of character and soul. The notion of a signature as a novel illustration of a selected particular person regularly got here to be enshrined within the regulation and accepted as professional authorized proof.
By the flip of the twentieth century, the typewriter had grow to be sufficiently established to immediate the primary widespread declarations of the obsolescence of handwriting. However it will be a protracted demise. In 1956, Look journal pronounced handwriting “out-of-date,” but cursive nonetheless claimed a safe place within the curriculum for many years.
Given a present technology of scholars by which so few can learn or write cursive, one can’t assume it would ever once more function an efficient type of communication. I requested my college students in regards to the implications of what that they had advised me, focusing first on their expertise as college students. No, most of those historical past college students admitted, they may not learn manuscripts. In the event that they have been assigned a analysis paper, they sought topics that relied solely on printed sources. One scholar reshaped his senior honors thesis for this objective; one other reported that she didn’t pursue her curiosity in Virginia Woolf for an task that might have concerned studying Woolf’s handwritten letters. Sooner or later, cursive must be taught to students the way in which Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is at the moment.
I continued questioning: Didn’t professors make handwritten feedback on their papers and exams? Most of the college students discovered these illegible. Generally they’d ask a trainer to decipher the feedback; extra usually they simply ignored them. Most school, particularly after the distant instruction of the pandemic, now grade on-line. However I puzzled what number of of my colleagues have been dutifully providing handwritten observations with none clue that they’d by no means be learn.
What about handwriting in your private lives? I went on. One scholar reported that he needed to ask his mother and father to “translate” handwritten letters from his grandparents. I requested the scholars in the event that they made grocery lists, stored journals, or wrote thank-you or condolence letters. Virtually all mentioned sure. Virtually all mentioned they did so on laptops and telephones or generally on paper in block letters. For a lot of younger folks, “handwriting,” as soon as primarily synonymous with cursive, has come to imply the painstaking printing they flip to when necessity dictates.
Throughout my years as Harvard president, I regarded the handwritten be aware as a sort of superpower. I wrote a whole bunch of them and stored a pile of be aware playing cards within the upper-left-hand drawer of my desk. They supplied a method to attain out and say: I’m noticing you. This message of thanks or congratulations or sympathy comes not from some workers individual or some machine however immediately from me. I touched it and hope it touches you. Now I’m wondering what number of recipients of those messages couldn’t learn them.
“There’s something charming about receiving a handwritten be aware,” one scholar acknowledged. Did he imply charming like an vintage curiosity? Charming within the sense of magical in its capability to create bodily connections between human minds? Charming as in establishing an aura of the unique, the distinctive, and the genuine? Maybe all of those. One’s handwriting is an expression, an providing of self. Crowds nonetheless throng athletes, politicians, and rock stars for autographs. We now have not but deserted our attraction to handwriting as a illustration of presence: George Washington, or Beyoncé, or David Ortiz wrote right here!
There may be an excessive amount of the previous we’re higher off with out, simply as there may be a lot to have a good time within the units which have served because the autos of cursive’s demise. However there are risks in cursive’s loss. College students will miss the joy and inspiration that I’ve seen them expertise as they work together with the bodily embodiment of ideas and concepts voiced by an individual lengthy since silenced by demise. Handwriting could make the previous appear nearly alive within the current.
Within the papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., I as soon as discovered a small fragment along with his scribbled title and his father’s tackle. Holmes had emphasised the importance of this small piece of paper by attaching it to a bigger web page with an extended be aware—additionally in his personal hand—which he saved as a relic for posterity. He had written the phrases in 1862 on the battlefield of Antietam, the place he had been wounded, he defined, and had pinned the paper to his uniform lest he grow to be one of many Civil Battle’s numerous Unknown.
However generally handwritten paperwork inform tales that their creators neither supposed nor understood. James Henry Hammond maintained a ledger by which he stored scrawled information of the births and deaths of the enslaved inhabitants on his South Carolina plantation. As a result of he included the names of the newborns’ mother and father and sometimes some further commentary, it was doable for me to reconstruct household ties amongst generations of individuals forbidden to maintain their very own written historical past. At one level, Hammond bought an 8-year-old boy named Sam Jones to work in the home, altering his title to “Wesley” within the course of. Practically three a long time later, Hammond recorded the beginning of a son to Wesley—a toddler to whom Wesley had given the title “Sam Jones.” As he recorded the infant’s beginning, Hammond was in all probability unaware of Sam/Wesley’s act of reminiscence and resistance. Greater than a century and a half later, we will nonetheless say Sam Jones’s title.
All of us, not simply college students and students, can be affected by cursive’s loss. The shortcoming to learn handwriting deprives society of direct entry to its personal previous. We are going to grow to be reliant on a small group of skilled translators and specialists to report what historical past—together with the paperwork and papers of our personal households—was about. The unfold of literacy within the early trendy West was pushed by folks’s need to learn God’s phrase for themselves, to be empowered by an expertise of unmediated connection. The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We’re shedding a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.
On the final day of sophistication, a scholar got here as much as me with a duplicate of certainly one of my books and requested me to signal it. I wrote an inscription that included not simply his title and mine, however thanks for his many contributions to the seminar. Then I requested, somewhat wistfully, if he’d like me to learn it to him.
This text seems within the October 2022 print version with the headline “Cursive Is Historical past.” Once you purchase a ebook utilizing a hyperlink on this web page, we obtain a fee. Thanks for supporting The Atlantic.