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.

QWERTY keyboard (US version)

QWERTY keyboard (US version), where the first six letters from left to right on the topmost row are QWERTY. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

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.

Learning Cursive

Learning Cursive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

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.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter as produced by E. Remington and Sons, 1873

"Photo of prototype typewriter invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule between 1868 and 1873, and manufactured as the 'Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer' by Eliphalet Remington & Sons Co., Ilion, New York, USA, beginning 1874. This was the first typewriter to be a commercial success (about 5000 were made), the first to use the QWERTY keyboard layout invented by Sholes, and the first to be called a typewriter; the term was coined by Sholes. The source does not say which of the many prototypes this is. Since it is dated the year Remington bought the rights, and was in the Buffalo Historical Society museum near the Remington headquarters, it may be the one Sholes and Glidden demonstrated to Remington. Caption text: "Sholes typewriter, 1873 (Museum, Buffalo historical society)" Alterations: removed frame, caption. Note: As the R is on the place it is nowadays, this is a model modified by Remington. There used to be a period on that spot. (see David, 1985, 'Clio and the Economics of QWERTY', pp. 333)... Downloaded 2008-1-9 from George Iles (1912) Leading American Inventors, Henry Holt & Co., New York, USA, p.328 on Google Books."
Description and credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

Edison's "Autographic Printing" Patent Diagrams (1876)

Edison's "Autographic Printing" Patent Diagrams (1876).
Credit: United States Patent and Trademark Office.
(Click image to enlarge).

“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.

Principia by Sir Isaac Newton

Principia by Sir Isaac Newton, 1686. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Cellarius Harmonia Macrocosmica - Orbium Planetarum Terram Complectentium Scenographia

Cellarius Harmonia Macrocosmica - Orbium Planetarum Terram Complectentium Scenographia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

I have selected a few documents to highlight the importance of being able to read American English documents written in a cursive hand.

U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776)

U.S. Declaration of Independence drafted in cursive, 1776. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

Benjamin Franklin's formulation of a general theory of electrical action (1777)

Benjamin Franklin's formulation of a general theory of electrical action in 1777.
Credit: The Library of Congress.
(Right click image, open link in new tab, and click with magnifying glass to enlarge).

First page of the Bill of Rights (1789)

First page of The Bill of Rights, 1789.
Credit: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

First U.S. patent (1790)

In 1790, Samuel Hopkins received the first US patent written in cursive and signed by then President George Washington.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Click image to enlarge).

First page of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln (1863)

First page, Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
Credit: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
(Right click image, open link in new tab, and click with magnifying glass to enlarge).

Thomas Edison’s notebooks describing his “Speaking Telegraph” (1877)

Edison’s notebooks illustrating and describing his “Speaking Telegraph,” 1877.
Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
(Click image to enlarge).

Diary of Orville Wright (December 17-19, 1903)

Diary of Orville Wright, December 17-19, 1903, where Wilbur’s “escape was miraculous” during the landing of the fourth and final trial flight of the 1903 Flyer at Kitty Hawk.
Credit: The Library of Congress.
(Click image to enlarge).

6 Responses to “In a Land Where QWERTY Would be King”

  1. sedeer Reply | Permalink

    Will people really no longer be able to read cursive just bevause they're not taught how to write it in primary school? Most people I know have write in "semi-cursive" mix of block letters and cursive, and it seems to me that the variation between cursive and non-cursive letters is less than the variation between different people's handwriting.

  2. Elizabeth Reply | Permalink

    This mirrors what happened when the Germans stopped using Sutterlin. My lecturer at university in 1980s said she was the only one in her class who could write and read it (no one asked to copy her notes!!).

  3. Joan Reply | Permalink

    Cursive will be like a foreign language!

  4. Karen Reply | Permalink

    I think that not teaching cursive writing is a wrong and short-sighted move--young people still need to know how to sign their name! And if they don't get the basics of cursive writing how are they going to do that with any style and uniqueness?

  5. Kenny Reply | Permalink

    The difference between learning to write cursive and learning a foreign language (whether a dead language, like Latin, or a living one) is one of several orders of magnitude. It is relatively easy to learn to write cursive. I remember in elementary school that it took only a handful of class periods at most before I was able to master the rudiments. I am sure pupils in the rising generation who are so motivated can avail themselves of the proper model and teach themselves to write cursive, particularly if they end up as graduate students. However, as someone who has learned a foreign language and teaches it to others, I can attest that that learning process is much more complicated and requires firm curricular support. (Learning Russian, by the way, requires learning a whole a separate set of cursive characters, and I have found that students are able to largely master it within a couple of weeks at most. Mastery of the rest of the language takes years and years of study and practice).

  6. Shannon Bohle Reply | Permalink

    Learning a language is certainly much more difficult than learning to write cursive, Kenny, that is not in question. But a comparison holds true. The problem is that when language learning like Latin became de-institutionalized, many fewer people were able to read texts written in Latin, which was once the the ligua franca of the ancient scholarly world. All of these documents, while available to look at, are unreadable today by most students and scholars who have not undertaken specialized study to learn Latin. If cursive writing skills too become de-institutionalized, those documents would also be accessible but unreadable to those who have not made a special effort to learn cursive. If you have ever worked with manuscripts from an earlier period the handwriting and spellings are quite different (particularly middle English, for example) or even printed fonts (such as those that use v instead of u) can take some getting used to. Now imagine, on top of all that not being able to read cursive handwriting. Looking back, future generations without Latin and without cursive special training will have lost the practical ability to read all but mid-20th century and later historical materials and documents. People will become ignorant to most of human history, except for what is told to them through secondhand sources, and this is dangerous because the past is then more easily manipulated to suit whomever is in power.

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