Cursive Writing and the Digital Divide

In recent years, the use of cursive writing in schools has dropped pretty significantly. Less and less states put cursive in their required curriculum, and according to National Public Radio (NPR) in 2007 only 15% of students who took the SAT wrote their essays in cursive. This has led some educators to question whether cursive should even be taught at all, and what its absence might mean going forward. Schools offering English Reading & Writing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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Is Cursive Still Relevant?

Since around the turn of the 20th century, most American schools have taught their students to write in cursive script, usually somewhere between first and third grades. Some educators and parents see this as a 'rite of passage' for students, a way to introduce them to a more adult and proper style of writing. In the face of modern technology, though, others have begun to wonder about its usefulness at all.

Since 44 states adopted the Common Core State Standards in education several years ago, the choice of whether or not to teach cursive has been left to each one of them. Early in August 2011, Hawaii joined Indiana and Illinois as those that no longer require cursive education in their official curriculum, responding to both increased pressure to produce results in other areas and a society becoming ever more digital. As usual when significant curricular changes are afoot, that move has prompted a significant outcry from proponents of more traditional education. To paraphrase author Kitty Burns Florey from a July 28 NPR broadcast, less people defend cursive, but more do it vehemently.

For and Against

What are some of those defenders' objections? Two specific negative points seem especially compelling: one, that students won't know how to read documents written in cursive, and two, that they won't be able to sign their own names. There are, of course, fixes for both. Efforts like Google Books are working to digitize handwritten texts; in a few years' time, there may not be many documents that don't have digital print versions available. As far as signatures, many important documents currently accept electronic proxies. Even if that's not the case, students could just be taught to sign their own name while omitting the rest of the cursive alphabet (this particular author has only retained enough knowledge of cursive to do that very thing).

Beyond those two points, most objections raised put forth the vague notion that cursive gives students more of an intimate connection to writing. There's not any solid evidence that that's true; why assume cursive writing is more intimate, for instance, than typing? A pen and paper are tools just as a keyboard and computer monitor are; yes, we hold a pen to form letters, but we also depress keys. Further, phenomenologically speaking, there's not much of a difference between writing in cursive and writing in print. Perhaps these staunch defenders of script need to consider that, when given the choice, 85% of students in 2007 preferred handwritten print.

Looking Forward

Even given all that, though, why leave cursive behind? As it turns out, there are arguments to be made that electronic communication actually helps kids write. For example, as Oberlin English professor Anne Trubek puts it on NPR, keyboarding is egalitarian - there's no room for anyone to judge an individual's handwriting, which often happens and is always unfair (there's no correlation between handwriting style and intelligence, people just think there is). Further, and perhaps more importantly, many children are already invested in electronic communication. Because of things like Facebook, Twitter and even texting on cell phones, lots of kids come to school with a knack for digital writing. That familiarity and investment allows them to spend more time thinking about what they actually want to write, not how they write it. Learning cursive, on the other hand, is an arduous task that almost always forces students to pay more attention to the process of putting letters on the page than what's being said.

The Digital Divide?

This emphasis on digital communication brings up another key issue, this one based in socioeconomics. Do all grade school kids really have the means to communicate electronically? It may be false to assume they have access to this technology. However, many public school districts work to eliminate that gap; Tracey Bailey, an educational policymaker, notes on NPR that even many of the poorest school districts put a priority on having computer labs; how else could so many schools insist that assignments get turned in only in typewritten forms? Further, Anne Trubek rightly points out that even if not every home has a computer, cell phones are basically 'ubiquitous,' and those provide an easy entry for kids into the world of digital writing.

Historical Precedent

Those staunch traditionalists who champion cursive education may want to pay attention to historical context. In the late 19th century, Austin Palmer developed his handwriting method to give workers an advantage in the business world - by using cursive, they could master quick notation that would make their professional lives easier. The business landscape now clearly necessitates digital familiarity. And at the end of the day, there are no real reasons why cursive should be prized any more than print handwriting or typing - it seems like we can safely let it go.

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