When the state of Indiana announced it would no longer require schools to teach cursive handwriting, I was LOL.
Not just because it’s a short-sighted idea. Instead, I had to chuckle, wondering, “What’s next?”
(Wait, you don’t understand what “LOL” means? Seriously? C’mon, learn to text. Get with it, and get out of the 20th century. That’s how we roll now, homies.)
When the government declared cursive relevantly dead, I immediately thought of a “Saturday Night Live” bit by Dan Aykroyd. It was 1976. Americans were being told to prepare for our nation’s full-scale conversion to the metric system within the next 10 years. The old English measurements of gallons and feet would become obsolete — dead. So Aykroyd’s character, Joseph Franklin of the U.S. Council of Standards and Measures, took the situation a step further.
In an SNL public service message, he informed viewers that the United States would also adopt a new metric alphabet, the “Decibet,” which would condense the ancient 26 letters into just 10. A, B, C and D would remain as-is, because they’re so popular. Others would be combined into one character — E and F; G, H and I; L, M, N and O; and, as Aykroyd put it, “the so-called ‘trash letters’” P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z. The word “eagle” would be pronounced “efaglef,” while mucus transforms into “LMNOucus.”
Ten fingers. Ten letters. “Now, isn’t that simple?” Aykroyd asked.
Thirty-four years after that satire aired, we still buy gas and milk in gallons, and carpet in square yards.
In ’76, Aykroyd joked about a boiled-down letter called LMNO (pronounced “elemeno”). Today, acronyms like “LOL” and “LMAO” (not to be confused with LMNO) are all over Facebook. In odd ways, Indiana and the rest of the country may be fulfilling Aykroyd’s bizarre prophecy.
This fall, the state joins 42 others that have scrapped requirements to teach cursive handwriting in elementary schools. Illinois made the same move this year, too. (Unlike with state taxes and budgets, Indiana’s reigning administration apparently considers the neighbor it loves to deride wise, in this case.) In a nutshell, those states have concluded that time committed to teaching third-graders the flowing style of handwriting would be better spent on upgrading their keyboarding skills. People, especially the young, have all but lost the need to read or write cursively.
Plus, cursive is typically not part of those all-important standardized tests used by states to evaluate schools under the No Child Left Behind law.
Well, real-world life is not standardized. Which do you remember most, the questions on your SATs or tracing upper- and lower-case cursive letters on lined paper? Which is of most value to you now? Do you suspect that keyboard- and text-savvy kids will also someday take notes in a meeting from a boss who frowns at an employee who pops open a laptop and starts tap-tap-tapping? If so, cursive writing — where the pen isn’t lifted until a word is done — is faster than printing each letter of every word. Also, will those tech-wise kids ever need to hand-write a thank-you?
The art of cursive writing is not an irrelevant relic from the childhood of misty-eyed Baby Boomers. As this debate reached a national level, educators and researchers have emphasized cursive’s beneficial role in developing fine motor skills in kids. Handwriting may lead to better comprehension than keyboard writing. (Is it possible the abandonment of cursive instruction could ultimately worsen SAT scores?) An experiment at the University of Stavenger in Norway, cited by ABC News, studied two groups of adults learning a foreign language. The group that learned the characters by hand had stronger recognition, weeks later, than those who replicated the characters on a keyboard.
Personality emerges through our cursive handwriting, too, messy or neat, bold and large or delicate and subtle.
Theresa Ortega notices that reality as a certified handwriting analyst. She works as an administrative assistant in Indiana State University’s recreational sports department, but also studies handwriting. She laments the state’s decision to end requirements for schools to teach the cursive style.
“For me, it’s largely about motor skills and motivation for children,” Ortega said. It’s sad, she added, to think a generation of young people someday may not be able to read the handwritten, cursive words on the original Declaration of Independence.
Ortega has a friend who analyzes handwriting for the FBI. The personality of suspects shows in their script. “It’s amazing the things you can get out of it,” Ortega explained. “Is this person a procrastinator? Does this person tend to lie a lot?”
Likewise, cursive expressions on paper reveal traits and intentions of people in everyday life. (The handwriting of most adults Ortega has studied involves a blend of printing and cursive.) The formation of letters and words is more than a physical act, she said. Often, a person who loses both hands in an accident, and then re-develops the skill to write with a pen held by their feet or mouth, will exhibit their prior cursive style, Ortega said.
“The same form of handwriting tends to come through,” she said.
It’s like a fingerprint. When a third-grader carefully swoops and loops together letters for that first signature, in school alongside classmates, that act marks an important moment of personal identity.
Yes, typing on a computer keyboard is crucial, and schools should continue teaching those skills. And, yes, more of us communicate through messages spelled out on a computer or a cellphone keypad than by handwritten letters or notes. But most of us rely on calculators to divide and multiply, and schools still teach those disciplines. A mix of instruction on keyboarding and cursive writing makes sense, and, thankfully, the Vigo County School Corp. intends to continue offering both, deputy superintendent Karen Goeller told the Tribune-Star this month.
Go to a coffeeshop or an Internet cafe and you’ll notice three or four people sitting at a table, not speaking to each other. Instead, all have a laptop open and are communicating with other people. Many of us text or email more than we talk by phone or face to face. That’s the trend, for now. Does that make verbal communication obsolete? Of course not. Should the phrase “I don’t know” be permanently expunged and replaced with “IDK” because people today converse that way? Of course not.
Unless that 10-letter alphabet thing finally catches on.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.