Archived Story

Learning cursive is about nostalgia

Published 9:49am Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

I don’t usually pick fights with fellow writers — except for maybe stupid-headed political commentators that don’t know anything about anything … but I digress. As I was saying, I don’t usually pick fights with fellow writers at the Tribune, especially ones who are not stupid-headed, but last week there was a column about preserving cursive handwriting instruction in schools which set me off on a rant.

Let me be blunt: Learning cursive is a waste of class time, if the learning of it is pitched as having anything to do with communicating more effectively. Pretty handwriting, if it has any place in modern elementary schools, belongs in the art classroom. Learning how to clearly print letters, words and sentences really ought to be enough before we switch to learning how to use a keyboard.

All three of my kids learned how to write in cursive in the third grade, as did I and my handsome wife, our parents and most of our grandparents. It’s a standard part of the curriculum in third grade in most schools. All of us brought our practice sheets home filled with elegant “a’s” and “s’s” and every other letter of the alphabet. We were all so proud of the neatness of our script and were careful about drawing all the little loops and connecting all the letters in each word, comparing them to the samples hanging on the wall above the blackboard.

Thinking about cursive always reminds me of my Oma — my mother’s mother — who had the most elegant handwriting I’ve ever seen. It was a joy to receive her letters when I was away studying at a university in Germany. She even kept the penmanship awards she’d won back in her Grundschule; we found them in a box in her bedroom after she died.

It’s time for a disclaimer: my own handwriting is terrible. My Oma would be ashamed. Every semester students complain that they can’t read my comments on their papers; they’re always hanging around after class, asking for translations. And they’re absolutely right to be annoyed because the scrawl they have to decipher is awful.

I have no pride in my handwriting. Sometimes even I can’t read what I wrote the day before. So I’ve switched to using my computer, and only write things by hand — using a confusing hybrid of cursive with block printing — when I can’t use the computer.

And I think that’s the point I’m trying to make. Communication today requires more advanced tools than pencils, pens and paper. At school, teachers really ought to be much more interested in the content of exercises, themes and essays than in whether students wrote in cursive.

I grew up when handwriting still mattered, when the technology of written communication was primarily the pencil or pen on paper, but I didn’t continue to use cursive. I got out of the habit, just as many of my classmates did, almost totally abandoning my “pretty writing” skills by college graduation.

So what did I gain by spending time learning it in the first place? Now that our communications technology is made up of word processors, tablets with styluses, email and texting, what do today’s students gain when learning cursive writing in school?

I don’t think that cursive is a complete waste of time. As I said above, there is aesthetic value in learning it, in art class, but it is a skill with limited value. It’s a nice sort of “luxury” to be able to write pretty sentences, but it isn’t the most efficient way to communicate anymore.

Like the writer of last week’s column, I think that children should be taught to write legibly in school — so that when the computers and tablets and smartphones don’t work, they can still write things down – just not necessarily in cursive. I think that keyboarding should be taught more than writing by hand.

I also think that in an era when public schools are being made responsible for so much – from good nutrition to mastering algebra – and face so much potential punishment for so many things, that class time in third grade could be used more productively, at least until we all get off the “kick the schools” bandwagon we seem to be on.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column usually appears every other Tuesday.