The times are changing. The three ‘R’s of Reading, ’Rriting,” and ‘Rithmetic that had been the staple of the public school for centuries is being reduced to two ‘R’s: Reading and ‘Rithmatic. Writing meant that students learned to express themselves in both print and cursive. Not anymore. Cursive writing is going away. While I don’t advocate maintaining an obsolete and irrelevant curriculum, I question the wisdom of denigrating the basics that enabled so many generations to be productive citizens – even with a minimal education. Let me use my grandparents as an example.
My grandfather acquired a third-grade education and my grandmother went through the sixth grade. Although their formal education was very limited, they were highly literate. They could read, write, and had enough math skills to function very independently. In fact, they could hold their own among some erudite college graduates. When my grandmother would talk to me about the importance of education, she referenced people she knew from her generation that were illiterate and had to have a witness present whenever they were required to sign their name because they didn’t know how to write. They could only put an ‘x’ on the line where a signature was required. My understanding from my grandmother’s stories was that the inability to write – even sign one’s own name – was extremely unfortunate but commonplace during the early twentieth-century – at least in rural Colorado where my grandmother was born (i.e., Lamar) and raised (i.e., Alamosa). Notwithstanding that a significant portion of the population at that time was uneducated, my grandmother had very strong opinions that there should be no excuse to go through life illiterate.
My grandmother’s handwriting was elegant. I always thought that if the old adage was true that penmanship reflects the purity of the soul, my grandmother certainly had a beautiful soul (and I was certainly headed for trouble, as penmanship was never one of my strengths). I was also intrigued with my mother’s handwriting. When I was in high school, I found a journal my mother had kept when she was a teenager. In addition to my interest in reading what was important in her life at the time, I was fascinated by her handwriting as a young woman – surprised by such things as dotting her ‘i’s with small circles – trying to be “cool,” I guessed. It shed new insights into knowing my mother.
The trend to eliminate cursive writing from the curriculum means that my grandchildren will probably never be able to read my grandmother’s letters and appreciate her elegant penmanship. They will look at pictures of their great grandparents and other distant relatives that have been long gone, and will never know who the people are in the pictures because my grandmother wrote their names in cursive on the back of the photographs. Without an ability to read (and write) cursive, the younger generation may never be able to appreciate insights into their family’s past through the letters, photographs, and journals of their relatives. In fact, this trend has been going on so long, I learned that the fellow Marines that share a barrack with my step-grandson cannot read letters from home if they’re written in cursive – potentially causing these soldiers to lose connection with their own families.
Because Colorado is a local control state, some public school districts, including many in the Trinidad State Junior College service area, have chosen to buck the national trend and continue to teach cursive. But this is the exception and not the norm.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article about the fact that we have an entire generation of young people entering college that cannot read or write cursive and many can’t sign their name in traditional cursive. The article, written by Valerie Hotchkiss, a professor and director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lamented the fact that research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges because of their inability to read and write cursive. She pointed out that with the absence of an ability to read cursive, we lose our connection to history.
The inability to read and write cursive is not just about losing a connection with history. Hotchkiss points out in her article that researchers have found that there is a close connection between writing and cognitive development – including attention span and retention of information. Specifically, retention of information is superior for those students that take notes rapidly by hand when compared to students that take notes on a keyboard. In addition, the Chronicle article referenced neuroscientists that have found that the act of writing in cursive builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of cognitive development that encompasses language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization.
I don’t believe we should be extreme in reforming the curriculum. It shouldn’t be a back to the basics vs. everything but the basics. I support a balanced and relevant curriculum. Cursive writing has been part of the foundation for basic literacy for over 300 years in our country, and it’s still relevant. I’m puzzled why some educators consider it unnecessary. What kinds of consequences will our children, grandchildren, and our society pay for this decision? If my grandparents were alive today, I’m pretty sure they would have an opinion about those coming out of a formal education in the twenty-first century and needing a witness when they put an ‘x’ on the signature line on a legal or formal document.
Dr. Kerry Hart is Interim President of Trinidad State Junior College