Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Death of Penmanship

When I read this Newsweek article, entitled "The Curse of Cursive," it triggered a lot of very strong reactions in me. In the article, the author, Jessica Bennett, complains that there is no purpose served anymore by requiring children to learn how to write in script. Printing is good enough when most people do not send handwritten letters anymore and instead communicate via email. Electronic communication better suits our digital age. Bennett is reacting to a new book entitled Script and Scribble, written by Kitty Burns Florey, who laments the loss of the written word. Florey argues that much, including one of our links to our common past, would be lost if penmanship became a lost art. Florey ignores the fact that for many people, learning cursive is simply impossible because they suffer from dysgraphia, and learning how to print legibly is a huge achievement. Trying to learn to write cursive would be extremely difficult for anyone with dysgraphia. My own handwriting is notoriously hard to read, sometimes even for me. It was never beautiful, despite following my grandmother's admonitions to practice every day. Her writing was simply beautiful. When she died at 102, her script was still straight (even on unlined paper) and every letter was always formed exactly the same way. I have kept her tattered, handwritten recipe cards because they are so evocative of her and of another era. My writing, on the other hand, never very good, completely deteriorated during the bar review course I took in 1983 and has gotten consistently worse over time. My daughter is, like other members of her generation, completely dependent on her laptop for almost all of her written communication. She writes thank-you notes by hand, but only because I insist. However, she took a calligraphy course one summer during grade school and became extremely adept at that. I have commissioned her to do name tags and place cards using calligraphy. It seems odd to me that she almost always uses print when she writes, but also is expert at calligraphy.


ablainenyls said...

I probably have dysgraphia. I never heard of it before today, but the symptoms in the link above all sound like me. I'm certainly not mourning the death of penmanship; it was never anything to me but a laborious source of embarrassment. I'm perfectly happy to see it confined to the realm of artists.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Wonderful post, Marie! I was very proud when I learned cursive handwriting in third grade. When we were proficient, we were allowed to use quasi-fountain pens -- real ones were already rare.

When my daughter learned cursive in the 2000's in a French immersion program, I discovered that French handwriting looks different from American. I suppose all of these differences will become nuances known only to archivists soon.

Johnny B said...

Someone needs to send this to LSAC. I was irritated to discover I was expected to copy the "I didn't cheat" statement, in cursive, before the LSAT. I have printed since the ninth grade, because my handwriting was so illegible that even I couldn't read it. I can't even remember how to form all of the letters. The whole thing took about five minutes. My printing, however, is quite neat and very readable and I could have have whipped it off in less than a minute.

I also would like to add that fountain pens are not rare, you just need to know where to look. I own about twelve of them, two or three of which I use regularly, and my wife has over a hundred.

Marie S. Newman said...

I was convinced that I was going to flunk the bar exam because my writing was illegible. I often wonder if I passed because they gave me the benefit of the doubt on my answers to the essay questions. I have some antique fountain pens that my grandmother gave me that are exquisite objects. I am afraid to use them because of their fragility, however. New York City has many little shops where one can buy beautiful fountain pens and many different colors of ink. I became familiar with them when my daughter took up calligraphy.

KateGladstone said...

As a diagnosed dysgraphic who read SCRIPT AND SCRIBBLE some twenty years after becoming the world's only dysgraphic professional remediator of handwriting, I'd like to point out that author Kitty Florey actually stopped writing in cursive during her research for this book, after she came to me to discuss handwriting styles and to get some help for her own handwriting.

She documents the above (and explains her decision to abandon cursive) in the second half of Chapter Five in SCRIPT AND SCRIBBLE. As you will see there, instead of using cursive she has changed to (and does much better with) the Italic style of handwriting: this joins only some, not all letters (making the easiest joins and skipping the rest) and uses print-like forms of those letters whose printed and cursive shapes "disagree." (One could actually have anticipated this decision of hers earlier in SCRIPT AND SCRIBBLE, when she cited the research showing that the fastest and most legible handwriters use print-like letter-shapes and make only the easiest joins, resulting in a semi-joined handwriting.)

Regarding the LSAC and other exams that require writing an "honesty paragraph" in cursive -- the firm which designs these exams (Educational Testing Services) informs me that they actually do not care whether you write it in cursive or not, as long as some of the letters join. (They know very well that not everyone writes in cursive -- although I wish they would update the exam instructions to reflect this knowledge.) They seek some joins in writing the paragraph (and therefore they request cursive) only because they save these paragraphs to use as comparative handwriting samples in cases where they suspect that someone has cheated on the exam by sending in another person to take it. (In such cases, the Educational Testing Service compares the "honesty" paragraph with prior and later writing done by the suspect: making things rather difficult, one must suppose, if the suspect has "printed" all of his/her life, but dutifully used cursive to copy the "honesty" paragraph!)

Kate Gladstone
Founder and CEO,
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works handwriting improvement service
Director, World Handwriting Contest