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Keys not the right replacement for cursive

Posted: July 17, 2011 - 8:54pm

I didn’t yet know what a font was but I do recall that learning how to write in cursive was a big deal, the sort of thing you anxiously anticipated.

I can still picture how each letter was posted in cursive above the blackboard in classrooms, and I remember all the time we spent trying to mimic those letters with our No. 2 pencils on white-lined paper. It was a milestone lesson, akin to learning to tie your shoes or to read.

So I was disappointed to learn this week that Indiana’s Department of Education has dropped cursive as a required lesson for young students. Instead, the emphasis will be shifted to developing keyboard skills as a means of preparing children for the ever-present digital age.

In fact, the Hoosier State’s directive dovetails with a national movement called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a proposed shared curriculum — which includes the cursive-for-keyboards shift — already adopted by more than 40 states, including Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

I had typing lessons too, even before computers were common enough that we could build our entire lives around them: one year of introductory typing at junior high school and another at high school. After the onset of the Internet, those lessons proved invaluable.

But what’s preventing us from continuing to teach both?

After all, without cursive, how will students know how to sign their names (less distinctive signatures could mean more cases of fraud or identify theft) and recognize the signatures of others.

How will they compose a proper thank-you note? Or read the Declaration of Independence?

Janie Cravens, a retired public school educator and past president of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting, called the shift away from cursive a “huge mistake.”

She also made an interesting point about the practicality of pushing kids toward electronic communication. Not every child, she reminded me, has easy access to computers, laptops, or iPads. And for those students, cursive is still an efficient and understandable way to communicate or take notes.

“This is not in touch with reality,” she told me. “Pens and pencils are still the most affordable and most practical way for people of all demographics to communicate.”

Of course, adult applicability should not be the only standard. With regard to younger students, there’s also a growing body of research that identifies the cognitive advantages of handwriting over keystrokes. Researchers at the University of Washington, for instance, conducted a study that found middle-school students who physically wrote their papers did so more productively and skillfully than those who typed them.

As those students get older, there should be certain core subjects that define a quality education. Cursive writing is one of them. Civics is another. So is comparative religion.

But at its heart, I suspect that the demotion of cursive in favor of keyboards rubs so many the wrong way because it represents yet another triumph of one-size-fits-all technology over the individual. For those of us who sought to perfect the Palmer method, our cursive became a reflection of our personality. It was immediately recognizable as ours — and distinct from anybody else’s.

But now we’re on the verge of trading John Hancock for Helvetica or Edwardian Script. Or worse, Times New Roman.

Not that I’m sorry the world has a growing number of font options. I just hope tomorrow’s students learn how to create their own as well.

• Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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