In a Land Where QWERTY Would be King
In the digital era where the keyboard dominates all forms of modern hand-based communications, from email to text messages, and signed bank checks are losing out to pin-based swipe and debit cards, the next generation may be becoming digitally literate, but that may come with a cost, the ability to read and write in cursive.
When the 2010 Common Core State Standards, a set of national standards which was designed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices in Washington D.C. for “Preparing America’s Students for College & Career,” failed to include penmanship and cursive writing, it was predicted that many states would subsequently drop this skill in favor of enhanced digital learning. So far, 45 states, with the exception of Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia as well as the territory of Puerto Rico, have adopted the standards. Of those, at least 38 of the 50 states, (with the exception of California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Utah that decided to retain it) will no longer be teaching cursive writing in the curricula. The change is a huge blow to historical studies and the ability to read primary sources. For those who cannot read cursive, these documents might as well be written in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In first grade, it is now recommended that students “With guidance and support from adults, use a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.6), but there is no mention of learning to read and write in cursive in grades K-12. Yet in the history and social studies curriculum, by sixth grade students must be able to “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1). The two requirements are incongruous.
Most historical primary sources before the twentieth century — that is, prior to the invention of the House printing telegraph in 1846, the commercial success of the Remington typewriter in 1874, and Thomas Edison’s 1876 patent for “autographic printing” — nearly all letters of correspondence, manuscript drafts, government documents (including vital records essential to genealogical research like birth certificates), and even the first U.S. patent were written by hand, and nearly all of those were done in cursive. It is simply un-American to not be able to teach students to read the original materials that pertain to America’s history, prosperity, struggles for freedom and equality, and other official government documents relating to innovation and scientific advancement in the US and abroad written in the English language.
“Cursive illiteracy” is a serious blow to the future study of a variety of branches of history, including diplomatics, paleography, genealogy, and the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine. It would also have a devastating effect upon the usefulness of archival and manuscript repositories and place an impossible burden on them for transcription services. We see this now with documents currently written in Latin and Greek, which are only available beyond the interesting images that need no translation, to specialized scholars, usually PhDs, most of whom today in the US did not have to learn these classical languages in school.
I would argue that the abandonment by schools today of cursive may parallel the consequences of their abandonment of the teaching of Latin in the 1960s. With a lack of training in Latin during my U.S. public school upbringing, I found it to be especially troublesome trying to deal with seventeenth century texts and earlier while researching the history of astronomy at Cambridge. Apparently, many of my British and European counterparts are still being trained in at least basic Latin — even one Italian graduate student studying an unrelated area like Economics could read my “Latin Therapy” texts without difficulty. My lack of training in American public schools to read complete Latin texts was a serious shock to the Cambridge dons supervising my work. Had I not been able to read cursive, I would have been utterly crippled in my research of documents even from the nineteenth century, which is eventually where my studies settled. Some public schools, however, are beginning to teach Latin again, citing increased SAT college entrance examination scores.
I have selected a few documents to highlight the importance of being able to read American English documents written in a cursive hand.