In the award-winning children’s book Muggie Maggie, by beloved author Beverly Cleary, a young girl stews over the prospect of learning cursive. In a brave act of defiance, she doles out her refusal, orchestrating a petulant, if somewhat amusing rebellion against her teacher.
“At first, Maggie is just feeling stubborn when she declares she won’t learn cursive,” reads the book’s description. “What’s wrong with print, anyway? She can easily type on a computer, so why would she need to know how to read those squiggly lines?”
More than 25 years after the book’s 1990 release, it’s a question that has everybody from educators and hobbyists, to parents and grandparents asking. In Muggie Maggie, the Digital Age had just barely begun to get underway. Today, teens and young children are the proverbial shepherds of the technology epoch.
Cursive writing is at a crossroads. Once a harbinger of education, the beautifully elegant, loopy, swoopy script is at risk of being as indecipherable as Egyptian hieroglyphics. While many fear that cursive is fast becoming a lost art, a looming question remains:
Do we really have a need for cursive anymore?
The question whether to continue to teach cursive became all the more murky when in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education revised its Common Core State Standards for English, eliminating the requirement for schools to include cursive in school curriculum. Not surprisingly, the move unleashed a fierce debate among educators, and other pundits. Yet, despite the war that erupted between the cursive enthusiasts and those who considered the form to be obsolete, states ultimately left it up to the schools to decide. Many opted out.
In 2014, 45 states and the District of Columbia did not require cursive to be taught in schools. As time passed, many people began to worry about what was being lost by throwing penmanship away, and a new movement emerged: the fight to keep cursive alive.
In the years since the standards were revised, dozens of cursive and handwriting advocacy groups have set up shop. Some are homeschooling mothers; others are high-profile educators, writers, professional calligraphers and politicians.
This January, one of those politicians, Indiana Sen. Jean Lesling, spoke about her attempt to pass Senate Bill 73, a measure that would add cursive writing back into the Hoosier State’s curriculum. It’s the senator’s fourth attempt at reviving cursive in the state; all of her other attempts failed to see any ink.
“I still have a pad of yellow Sticky Notes, and if I write out something neatly in cursive, I expect an intern at the Senate to be able to read that,” she recently told the Indianapolis Star.
Lesling isn’t alone. Other states are reevaluating the Common Core’s standards. States like California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have either reinstated cursive writing in school, or are weighing measures to do so.
The influx of tablets and other mobile devices has many people wondering if all handwriting — not just cursive — is on its way to becoming a thing of the past.
About a year and a half ago, pen maker BIC launched the “Fight for Your Write” campaign to help save handwriting from the nature of a growingly auto-correct culture. While, BIC’s voice in the matter could be said for obvious reasons, handwriting’s advantages have long been documented.
“The last few years, there’s a real spotlight on technology and on tablets and computers and I had a moment where I wondered if it was the end of handwriting,” says Pam Allyn, an author, founding director at LitWorld, BIC’s “Fight For Your Write” spokesperson. “This movement is really growing. We might be in the world of technology but people still want to communicate in this really beautiful way. It’s the farm-to-table [movement] of literacy.”
Allyn points to strong research, which continues to show that children who physically put pen to paper have improved cognitive development, self-confidence, spelling and grammar, creativity, imagination and critical thinking skills. There’s also a strong reading-writing connection.
The elimination of cursive programs is startling then, when one considers that 66 percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” in a national reading test. While it can’t be blamed entirely for the statistic, many educators argue that as many public and lower-income schools drop their cursive curriculum, students from other schools —many of them private — will almost certainly hold an advantage.
Yet, the advantages of handwriting go well beyond the cognitive or educational benefits, says Allyn. She compared cursive to ordering take out vs. meal preparation.
“You’re more conscious of where things come from,” she says. “When you’re making letters by hand, you’re thinking about what is going into this, and what you send out into the world. You tend to use the page more dynamically. Cursive lettering, putting thoughts down in that way, makes you more mindful.”
Even in a world chock full of iPads and iPhones, Allyn says people still find satisfaction in choosing a favorite pen or notepad — and writing’s other nuances, such as perfecting one’s style or signature. Not to mention its historical significance.
“It’s part of our history as a people, as a country, as a citizenship,” says Allyn. “When you really stop and think, you really don’t want to lose that part of humanity. Let’s not lose it.”
In a twist of irony, even as the U.S. Department has removed the requirement for cursive curriculum, the White House continues to keep the tradition alive. The Administration employs four full-time calligraphers, including White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair, who works closely with the First Lady and the Social Office to create handwritten menus, invitations, place-cards and other documents.
Blair wholeheartedly believes handwriting should be supported in schools.
“Without a doubt, both handwriting and keyboarding should be learned,” she says. “Besides the benefit of brain development, what about being able to read original hand-written documents such as The Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation? What kind of country will not teach students to read and appreciate this important part of history? There is still plenty of will to keep students and adults enjoying beautiful handwriting.”
“To me, anything created by hand is special — it is more personal, more unique, and most important, more beautiful,” she adds. “There is a life and personality that cannot be duplicated by a machine.”
To be fair, few people exude the beautiful penmanship showcased in historical documents, or even in the letters of our grandparents. Journalist Justin Pot wrote a controversial editorial about the debate last year. By the end of the 20th century, as the fountain pen was replaced by the ballpoint pen, and the pen was replaced by the keypad, Pot says cursive had already long lost its luster.
“The Palmer method is hideous when compared to other scripts, slower than typing and less practical than typing — that’s what I mean by anachronism,” Pot explains in a phone call. “I’m all for teaching calligraphy and scripts in art class, or to better yourself, but I just don’t think it should be taught as a practical thing — you just don’t use it in your day-to-day life.”
Pot openly balks the spate of post-apocalyptic responses he’s received since his editorial ran last year, something that exploded after The Atlantic cited him in a popular article. He says the idea that he’ll regret his stance on handwriting “the day computers stop working” is utterly ridiculous. In the tech age, he simply sees penmanship as a waste of time.
“All language drops off at some point,” Pot says. “People feel deeply about it, because it’s something very tactile, putting pen to paper. But it’s weird — I don’t think you need to teach the Palmer method for a half hour every day to read it.”
But if they can’t write cursive, how will they read it?
“I guess you have a point,” Pot says. “I’m willing to admit there are shades of nuance in this debate.”
There’s no denying the emotional bond that many people have toward cursive and handwriting. As a professional calligrapher, Debi Zeinert has made a career out of her passion, appearing in Martha Stewart Weddings and penning invites for NASCAR, among others.
“I was raised in Catholic school, learning the Palmer method from the nuns in school,” Zeinert reminisces. “I remember sitting in class, the alphabet above the top of the blackboard and being so excited to learn cursive. You learn it, and you learn how to add your own flourishes.”
The self-taught penman says she spent hours practicing her craft, tracing the beautiful letters written by her grandmother, and cutting letters out of magazines to hone her talent.
“The people I know that really do beautiful handwriting, you get a letter from them in the mail and you sit back and just go Ahh…,” Zeinert says. “[Children] need the discipline of handwriting. They need to slow down and think about what they are doing, instead of copying and pasting. It’s too cookie cutter, now.”
Ironically, the rise of technology, and in particular, social media has only bolstered the calligraphy community, she says, though she is still concerned about the removal of cursive curriculum in the classroom. As a member of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting, the group strongly advocates for the cursive cause.
“They take music out, they take art out, all the things that make people the individuals and make them — it’s not even exposing them to it that is so sad,” says Zeinert. “It’s like shutting another door to the past. We’re fighting tooth and nail to keep cursive in schools and to keep cursive alive.”