On the Death of Cursive
As a lover of letters, romance, and antiquity in general, I was gutted to hear that schools have been phasing out the module on penmanship that includes cursive. Taught around third grade and the source of many a dreaded flashback, cursive has come under attack on the grounds that it is of little importance and is obsolete in modern adult life. While I will admit that cursive is not as fundamental as say basic math, literacy, or socialization, it is nevertheless something worth knowing. We may not make use of cursive regularly (or at all, some cynics may say) but we’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
I find it strange that as a society which increasingly devalues cursive for complicating the written word, we seem demonstratively occupied with stylized writing and fonts. Think about it: website building, graphic design, fashion, car decals, promotional materials, wedding invitations, and tattoos all focus presentation just as much as meaning. Even more confusing is that many of these media make use of script-based fonts that mimic — that’s right — cursive.
If we take a step back from the humdrum use of cursive to sign paperwork and the occasional oddball check, we’d see the artistry and history that decorate the pages before us. If we stop to think about it we’d notice that each stroke is done with personalized style, slanted at a particular angle, embellished with pronounced loops and tails, and crafted with that special gel or ballpoint pen you’ve been babying for God knows how long. With all the time and effort spent on creating aesthetics to match the sentiment of the content it represents, it would be foolish to think of cursive as anything but an art form.
Take for example, the traditional art form of calligraphy (the meditative practice of forming Chinese characters through artful brushstrokes). Beginning as early as 1600 BCE, calligraphy emerged as a spiritual artform linked with the societal teachings of Confucius (Lachman 2018). Part of the charm and power behind calligraphy lied within its ability to record the emotion expressed by the artist wielding the brush. The weight and length of lines reflected the pressure, speed, and technique of the artist as they recorded their message (Lachman 2018; Delbanco 2008). In his article on Asia Society, Charles Lachman notes that Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty shared this belief as well and made sure to leave a decorative message “to be able to ‘commune’ with his relative, even after death, through the traces of his personality embodied by his calligraphy” (2018). For millennia China has attributed beauty and value to words because of the power of semantics and the skill required to execute the physical form. By looking to ancient China’s practice of and reverence for calligraphy, particularly what Dawn Delbanco identifies as caoshu (the “cursive script”), we can draw some parallels to English cursive (2008). Both require patience, practice, and skill to be done properly (i.e. legibly and stylistically) and can enhance the meaning behind a message. In totality, both function as another way to demonstrate the power, beauty, and longevity of words.
Cursive has played a large role in my own life. For me, cursive represents what author Virginia Woolf wrote about in “A Room of One’s Own;” it represents the time and space for me to express my thoughts at my leisure, in the comfort of my personal sanctuary, for my own purposes. Cursive is at once a symbol of freedom, a tool of reflection, and a mark of history--filling the hundreds of pages of letters to my aunt Sissy, the confines of my most personal journal, and the notebooks that hold my visions of the future. For those who may argue that my love of cursive is born of romanticism and novels, you may be right, but I refuse to believe it is without genuine use.
For my final arguments in defense of cursive I will leave you with my thoughts as a reader and history enthusiast. I worry that those of us who cannot write cursive won’t be able to read it either. Think of all the great historical texts tomorrow’s students will miss out on. Our foundational patriotic documents are scrawled with cursive that was essentially penned with a goose’s ass. Without practice forming the letters and processing the beautiful variations of cursive within their own classrooms, what chance do the youngins have of deciphering old text? How many letters will escape the genealogical trail? How many invaluable primary sources will be lost to the naked eye? Thinking back to my time researching in the history department, I would have been unable to collect the data I needed. The Irish archives were full of first-hand written accounts of life before the war, of lives lived and regrets had. If I hadn’t written and read cursive since childhood, deciphering those powerful messages would have been impossible (and led to twice the premature crows feet). If we do not teach the next generation the importance of cursive, at the very least for historical purposes, will they ever take interest in the daily lives of those who have come before them? What will they record for the generations after them? And in a world highly conscious of mental health, will they have utilized this skill to create something offline to keep in a room of their own?
Recommended Reading/ References:
Delbanco, Dawn. “Chinese Calligraphy.” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum, Apr. 2008, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm.
Lachman, Charles. “Chinese Calligraphy.” Asia Society, asiasociety.org/education/chinese-calligraphy