I don’t usually read John McWhorter. Over the years, I’ve seen enough work by him to know I find him annoying, possibly because he strikes me as one of those people who have carved out a career as a contrarian.
But he had a column about whether kids should be taught cursive this week and, given his usual defense of the old-fashioned, I thought this might be one place where he and I aligned.
Nope. Turned out he thinks it’s great that kids aren’t learning cursive anymore. Our ongoing record of disagreement continues, because I do think learning cursive — or, as I call it, longhand — is useful.
Now I should tell you that the only subject I struggled with in elementary school was handwriting. That includes learning to print as well as learning to write longhand.
It’s not that I couldn’t recognize the letters — I was reading before I started school — nor that I didn’t know how to make them.
It’s that the way I made them was always messy. They were readable. They were “right.” But they didn’t look very good.
Longhand was no harder for me than printing, which is to say that I could easily do both, but never do either to my teachers’ satisfaction.
The end result? Judging by my handwriting, you’d assume I was destined to be a doctor. (I wonder if the old joke about doctors’ handwriting still applies in the modern world in which prescriptions are sent electronically.)
My handwriting has not improved with age. At one point in my life, I took an aptitude test in which I discovered that I had multiple aptitudes — an explanation for my multiplicity of interests — except in one area: fine motor coordination.
I test at 5 percentile on fine motor. The funny thing is, I kind of enjoyed the test for that. I was just very, very slow and clumsy at it.
I took typing in summer school when I was in high school and even though I was never a great typist — I am apparently not good at any skill where you are supposed to be very accurate with your fingers — I immediately starting typing everything.
Long before personal computers were a thing, I was writing on a typewriter rather than by hand. I should probably note that I was raised by journalists, and being able not just to type but to write directly on a keyboard was considered a basic skill.
I thought correcting typewriters were a gift of the gods and I got my first computer in 1983 (which is about to be 40 years ago). Typing on something where I could correct my errors and go back and revise without having to retype was the most wonderful thing I could imagine.
I compose almost everything I write by resting my fingers on a keyboard and thinking. (I do not like keyboards that are so responsive that you can’t touch a key without it registering.)
So why, you reasonably ask, do I think it’s good to learn longhand?
Well, first of all I know people who do their writing by hand. Some of them print, but most probably use cursive. Some of them are younger than I and have used keyboards much of their life, but their thinking process requires pen or pencil and paper rather than a keyboard.
Secondly, I happen to find printing much slower than writing longhand. Working on the assumption that there are times in life when one needs to write something by hand — a sympathy card, perhaps, or shopping list or notes (I’ve heard taking notes by hand is good for memory) — I suspect people should learn both printing and cursive and figure out which, or what combination, works for them.
I don’t think it should be a big deal. I don’t think kids should be graded on it. I just think they should be taught the core skill, just as they are taught to add and subtract even though everyone has a pocket calculator on their phone.
I’m not advocating for the Palmer method here and I don’t see any problem with kids being messy in their handwriting. I turned out fine. I just think being shown the various ways to write things down and then figuring out the way that works for you is useful.
McWhorter apparently discovered he could print faster than he could write cursive. I can’t. Being exposed to both gives you options.
I saw something on social media this week about what we will do if electricity suddenly becomes unreliable or disappears altogether. The person who wrote it suggested we would take lessons from the Amish.
Now it happens I think that rather than figuring out how to live without electricity we should be developing microgrids and solar-powered battery systems so that we still have power even if there’s a situation with transmission lines or some terrorist group decides to shoot up a substation as recently happened in North Carolina.
That is, I am not advocating for writing by hand because I’m afraid we’re going back to the “dark” ages. It’s just there are times when it’s handy to write something down on paper and I suspect we all differ on the best way to do that.
Yeah, everybody learns to print because written materials are made with printed letters even when they’re on screens. But that still doesn’t mean that some people won’t find it easier to write longhand when they need to.
People need to learn the options so that they can do what makes sense to them and their bodies and minds. This applies to a lot of things in life and is maybe a better argument against grades and strict rules than it is against learning cursive.
Also, I am one of those people that goes into office supply stores and salivates over notebooks and pens even though I don’t write that way except for notes. Don’t ask me why, but there’s just something about a nice fountain pen and a pristine notebook.
And I can’t imagine printing in one.