Were the Founders Soft on Cursive?
by Craig Ladwig
It seemed a harmless enough idea. The copy editor here, Joyce Preest, who holds a graduate degree in communication, wrote a lament about the recent decision by Indiana educators to abandon cursive or so-called “secretary” writing.
Her column, published widely, split families right down the Carolingian minuscule. Mrs. Preest’s own daughter, a deputy prosecuting attorney, charged her with “fogeyism,” which carries a serious penalty in that family.
Well, Mrs. Preest’s column can stand by itself on the graphonomics of the matter; I urge you to read it here. This editor, though, has an obligation to answer the complaints of readers who wonder why in these serious times we are expending energy on an anachronism.
To begin, the issue is anything but a waste of time; it broaches what the historian Paul Johnson identified as the great philosophical issue of our age — relativism, the absence of absolutes.
Moreover, there is the matter of the Collective Bargaining Act. It is suspected that the apparatchiks in the teachers unions are merely ridding their membership of a harrowingly difficult task.
For cursive writing is indeed an absolute, one that must be faced at a time in life we want nothing more than to be left at a recess of unconstrained relativity. The transformation is tough work for both pedagogue and pedagogee but if we adults go soft on cursive where does that leave us?
Geology? Geography? You can follow your global positioning system to the airport and fly to anywhere, oblivious to the nature of mineral deposits (just Google it) or even the cardinal points of the compass. Math? With handheld calculators, we are free, free at last.
All of that done, teaching would be only a joy — a heavenly exercise at good pay with ample pension surrounded by laughing children exploring life for life’s sake.
(Slap) Let’s get back to reality. Consider the damage that cursive has wreaked since even before the Norman Invasion. Ours has not been a history of Mrs. Preests, whose grammar, spelling, penmanship and cursive are exemplary, who never understood why anyone would feign illness on a school morning, whose letter grades on blue-book exams were elevated two levels before the professor read the answers.
History is filled, rather, with we barbarian miscreants who got our first glimpse of hell in the red, contorted face of old Miss Becker trying for the umpteenth time to instill the importance of the slope of an uncompromising down stroke on the lower-case “a.”
Our anguish was the worse because we had taken pride creating our own version of the stroke, one we had considered a brilliant improvement right up to the moment of utter humiliation.
So why defend this system that so nearly ruined me?
Maturity, mostly. As I built a career in journalism I was forced to admit that the skill of cursive — had I retained it — would have been useful. The job, after all, was cursive-intense, the daily labor of jotting down quotes and facts at speed and on deadline.
More important, though, it was cursive that alerted me to a world that can be arbitrarily cruel if entered unprepared. Mine was a third-grade wake-up call to the fact I would not be forgiven for spilling the milk, shoe laces had to be tied with a bow knot and I had to remember to zip my fly — a place where, like it or not, or even agree or not, certain things had to be done “just so,” to borrow the title of Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful book of children’s stories.
In the parlance of today, cursive taught me “it is what it is,” that there are absolutes in just about everything and it pays to know where they are.
Finally, consider our Declaration of Independence. The presentation copy had to be rewritten, you know, by a professional penman, the graphologically immortal Timothy Matlack.
Thomas Jefferson, a fellow miscreant, did not join all of his letters.
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