The Curse of Not Teaching Cursive

Some school boards won’t teach cursive writing anymore. The impact of this decision bears heavily on the ability to write and read handwritten documents, with possible implications for historical interpretation.

By Serena Ypelaar

In our increasingly digital age, what will become of handwriting?

I’ve always found it fascinating to see people’s handwriting, and I associate the way they write with their personality, almost. At least, it’s a part of their identity. Being able to recognize people’s handwriting is also useful when you’re trying to tell who wrote something (it’s always interesting that Santa seems to have the same penmanship as Mum or Dad…).

cursive
Photo: Michal Jarmoluk

Yet, with the domination of smartphones and laptops, we don’t have to hand-write notes or messages as often as before. As a lover of the written word, and a typography nerd, I feel a bit wistful reflecting on the disappearance of paper and pen.

One thing that strikes me is the choice of some school boards to cease teaching cursive writing to children. It’s something that’s happened in my own province of Ontario – kids are no longer going to learn cursive penmanship, meaning that they will have to resort to printing, in the case that they do write.

whitman
A letter handwritten by Walt Whitman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I myself write an approximation between printing and cursive writing, wherein I drag my pen to connect the letters (it’s much easier and quicker than printing, but it’s not by-the-book cursive). However, I know how to read cursive writing – but will the people of the future?

Take this letter from American poet Walt Whitman, for instance. We can probably decipher the text, as Whitman’s scrawl is fairly legible compared to countless other cursive letters, but we’ve also learned in school how to recognize the script (the letter “Q” in cursive always looked like a silly “2”, or a swan, but we get taught to recognize it – something our children won’t receive).

It’s difficult to say whether people who haven’t been taught cursive writing will be able to read letters like these. Whitman’s hand is one thing, but how about those who wrote much more sloppily in the past, or with a much steeper slant?

Writing woman a letter, with her maid, by Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid”, Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not too long ago, I was at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where I completed my master’s degree. I spent a few days reading through the correspondence of General James Wolfe, the leader of the victorious British forces at the fabled Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1763) which defined the colonial future of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Wolfe’s writing was quite elegant, but I often had trouble deciphering some of his words (I’d like to illustrate my point, but the original copies of his letters are protected in the library, so I don’t have photographs).

Letters like these, and early manuscripts, are extremely important documents to study, both in a literary and historical sense. In the humanities, we’re working with written documents all the time, and being able to read as much as we can is a necessity. Even just for leisure, being able to write and read cursive is a special and worthwhile skill. It’ll be interesting to see how reading evolves in the future when most of the documents we produce will be typed.

It’s a little ironic: I almost wish I could have handwritten this post for effect.