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Longhand Lament...

On January 31 a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal addressed a growing trend to dispense with the teaching of cursive script in grade schools. Not surprisingly, many students were found to be in favor of the idea. One might ask whether those students are qualified to make the assessment. After all, they are in the early stage of what is still an established tradition: a dozen years of education and training that is part of ‘growing up’.

Those who can write in both cursive and block letters will readily confirm that cursive writing is much faster than block printing; maybe as much as three times as fast. Depriving children of the skill of cursive writing will confine them to a life of low-speed writing. Or will it? The ‘experts’ advocating removal of cursive writing propose to replace it with keyboard competence. There is little doubt that keyboards have become essential tools in today’s culture; without them books and newspapers would become prohibitively expensive to produce. Competence on a keyboard does not take more than maybe 20 hours of practice, and it hardly requires any explanation at all. Why then should ‘keyboarding’ become a required part of a school curriculum? Do schools need to teach how teeth are brushed?

Yet even keyboards appear to become an endangered species. Not so long ago, the Apple iPad, and then other tablet computers, spread over the world like a tsunami, and understandably so: they offer most of the functions of the ubiquitous personal computer in a compact and lightweight package. But anybody who ever tried to type more than an address line or brief email on a touch screen will admit that he would never write a novel on it. Its simulated keyboard does allow selection – ‘input’ – of the signals associated with keystrokes, but it is a very unfriendly interface for human fingers. Does the popularity of tablet computers reflect the vanishing need – and skill – of writing?

We have long acquiesced to the idea that activities such as the design and production of cars, computers and airplanes are delegated to a small subset of people who use tools that are not even known to most of us. But communication without writing is unthinkable, and quite possibly so is thinking without writing. How might one evaluate whether some thought stands up to scrutiny, if not by first capturing that thought in words, and then staring at those words as they are written on paper? It is ironic that in our ‘age of communication’ we now appear ready to dismiss one of the most fundamental tools of communication as archaic.

Thoughts do not come on schedule, nor only when a keyboard – or its awkward virtual equivalent – is at hand. Should we then declare thought off-limits at other times? It smacks of the grade-schooler who explains that he cannot brush his teeth because the power is off.

The proposed dismissal of cursive writing will not eliminate all hand-writing. But it will deprive future generations of the skill to produce ‘running script’ – and its associated ‘flowing thought’. We should be careful about what we ask: our wish may be granted … to our chagrin.