In a tech-savvy, texting-obsessive world, are thumbs and poking fingers at keyboards all we need to create a visual representation of our thoughts? I spend as much time as anyone on keyboards and on smart phones. But, allowing cursive writing to disappear is a shortsighted mistake.
As fallout of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001, and similar legislative standards, penmanship and cursive writing were not being tested. “Increasingly schools gear curricula to excel” at tests that grade the schools, ABC News summarized in an interview with Kathleen Wright of Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of education writing materials.
Since we teach to the test, it became easy to erase cursive out of the classroom with a big “PinkPearl” eraser. (Note the irony that the logo on the eraser is in cursive).
The iconic “PinkPearl” eraser. Identified with its cursive title and distinctive shape.
I taught English at the college level and have volunteered in elementary classrooms, and I “get” the struggle to fit everything into the academic day with all the (outrageous) administrative expectations we put on classroom teachers.
But, a comment to me while I was in the state archives of the Ohio Historical Society got me thinking about the entire topic. The comment was, “With kids not learning cursive, they have no idea what these historic documents say.” Cursive documents can appear like a pattern of undecipherable curls and loops, rather than representing words and thoughts.
My First Argument:
I remember how challenging it was for my younger son to learn the Roman alphabet. As a first-grader he brought me a sheet of his own hieroglyphics and told me he wanted to use his symbols for words and reading. He understood that characters stood for words, but he had a hard time with Roman characters. Eventually the fact that he thought differently paid off for him. Now as a filmmaker, he is able to process and solve problems either globally in a right-brained process, or with more literal linear left-brain thinking.
But his hieroglyphics posed questions for me. There was more to the significance of him bringing me his hieroglyphics than I could completely comprehend then or now.
I believe that in that example somewhere is one of the reasons why it is important to teach cursive. Maybe it is a “black swan” sort of concept. Understanding or being exposed to more sets of hieroglyphics introduces us to the notion that there are others alphabets out there: Roman is not the only alphabet. It introduces the possibility of protocols and systems that exist beyond your native 26-letter plan. To get the drift of the magnitude of this notion, Google “how many letters in the alphabet?”
But in the context of this discussion, what else is learned from reading, writing and specifically cursive writing? Having taught art to elementary kids for a dozen years, I know how fine motor skills for some youngsters is excruciating.
Some cursive text from a journal my grandfather carried in Italy as he traveled through Europe in 1900. He is discussing Renaissance art and the same paintings, sculpture and churches I visited more than 100 years later. Seeing the text in his own hand is very powerful. Can I absorb more of my grandfather’s personality by the energy and grace he conveys through his cursive handwriting?
Yet, the act of connecting the brain to the hand to physically create words taps into different parts of the brain than typing. Anyone with minimal typing skills can talk while typing. Yet, anyone who has spent time writing on a chalkboard while talking knows that it is more difficult. The process of connecting our hand with a tool and moving it physically to shape the letters is overruling our ability to simultaneously talk and think about different words than we are writing. Interestingly science concurs: Brain scans of students who were a “hands-on group” showed greater stimulation in the area of the brain associated with “language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech associated gestures,” than the group that had used a keyboard.
Anne Mangen associate professor at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre was quoted in the ABC story to say, “Handwriting seems, based on empirical evidence from neuroscience, to play a larger role in the visual recognition and learning of letters.”
I know, as an artist, I cannot be involved in serious painting and talking at the same time. Tapping into your right brain, which I theorize is done by using a tool in your hand and physically, muscularly creating a shape, (and not by typing) is an important physical connection to allow creative thinking to be nurtured.
There is sort of nirvana-like state in creating art when you as the left-brain, analytical thinking person can disappear and there is an exquisite harmony of, I presume, the artistic right brain and the connection of your internal energy to the tool in your hand. You are not even aware that you are creating something. It is not conscious. It is intuitive and almost dreamlike. Time is suspended and the entire world consists of your subconscious and a connection between the tool that is making the marks. In my experience, at that point, my art is beyond my abilities—or truly beyond my conscious abilities. I have done a lot of typing and this has never happened at a keyboard.
For those who may be artistically inclined, the process of competently using a tool—crayon, pencil, pen, brush, or rasp, requires thousands of hours of eye and hand coordination. If we never put tools in hands—except for smart phones, screens and keyboards—will we lose our ability to create art?
This painting is part of my “Maladjusted Vegetables” Series of paintings depicting “vegetables with an attitude.” There was a great deal of alliteration involved in the little stories I made up about each of the vegetables featured. But in the context of this post, I created this alphabet–or some would say, this font– to augment the whimsical quality of the paintings. The “whirliness” of the cursive added to the silliness of the mood of the painting.
My Second Argument:
An entirely different argument raised for me by this question of cursive was: is cursive another language and therefore a natural way to introduce bilingualism to our students?
The study of other languages, allows us to step outside our assumptions and try on someone else’s culture—learn what they value, their sense of humor, their sense of courtesy, their idioms and slang. Additionally, to learn that there exist hundreds of alphabets that have no relation to the Roman alphabet can be an eye opener. Cursive in itself—similar to the sheet of hieroglyphics my son brought me so many years ago—can be an entry point to expanding one’s thinking to understand that these protocols of sticks and curves, characters and icons, are representations of words and concepts.
For example, it has always fascinated me how kids make the jump from looking at a stylized drawing of an apple, let’s say. And we repeatedly say “apple” in the A-B-C book to the child. Then we show her an apple to eat. Somehow the concept of the iconic representation of the flat, two-dimensional picture in a book is translated within her mind to equate to a three-dimensional delicious sweet fruit. Perhaps the apple that is put in her hand is even sliced up and without its skin, so it has virtually no relation to the visual of the apple in the book. But because we as humans can grasp these abstract thoughts, even tiny toddlers can allow these two vastly different concepts to merge into one word and the three-dimensional reality of a wonderful fruit. I think exposure to different alphabets creates another portal to abstract thinking. Where would math and science be without abstract thinking—let alone art! How could the Internet even exist—as well as smartphones?
I don’t know what the long-term effects would be of eliminating cursive, and I’m not sure anyone does. But I recommend we continue to teach it. If not in schools then somewhere! I think it is valuable not only for hand-eye coordination and fine motor development but for the time it gives a child to let her mind wander and think creative thoughts. And for the grounding of the abstract concept that these different symbols represent the same words as the Roman alphabet. I’m an advocate for those who are attracted by it and find it faster, easier or more beautiful and for the ability to create a signature. But also to allow us to continue to decipher our founding documents, diaries and correspondence of our history.
What do you think about cursive?
For some great information on cursive and penmanship, and a wonderful video about the value of teachers and good writing, go to: http://www.zaner-bloser.com/about-us/history
Here’s a paragraph from the site about a developing “penman” in America: “In 1888, Charles Paxton Zaner founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio. The school’s curriculum included courses that prepared students for careers as penmen, who, at that time, wrote by hand most of the documents used by business and industry. The school also trained students to become teachers of penmanship, illustrators, engravers, and engrossers-specialists in the kind of ornamental writing used for diplomas and certificates.”