Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Cursive Conspiracy

There was a small media blip about cursive writing recently. Namely, that cursive writing might go the way of the Canadian penny, in that schoolteachers won't be required to teach it in Ontario. And like the penny, good riddance. Even better, educators are finding that proper typing is a more useful skill, and I wholeheartedly agree.

When I went through school, we were told a number of things about handwriting. We were not told that it was important because it was part of the curriculum (the word 'curriculum' had likely not entered my vocabulary yet, not to mention the bureaucratic environment from which it originates) but because it was a skill we children would need later in life. We were told the same thing a few years further in about the importance of writing in pen instead of pencil.

For example, I distinctly remember being told in elementary school that we'd have to get used to writing in pen, in cursive, because we'd be required to use it in middle school. Which was true enough--it was--except that middle school required us to follow the same convention only insofar as the same warning applied, this time one tier up looking on to high school.

Then the cracks started to show in the plan. Here's a sample of my notes from a high school English class:

This one was in pen, but it sure isn't cursive. In fact, it doesn't look much like print, either. The illegibility suggests that our high school teachers didn't really give a fuck how we wrote (which, sadly, seems to still be the case). None of my other surviving papers from high school were in cursive, either (though admittedly, most of the samples were from math and science classes, where print--and pencil--prevailed). Nevertheless, I seem to recall (and this might be apocryphal) a teacher telling us that we could print if we wanted to, but warned us that we'd be required in university/college/life to write in cursive.

In university, they really didn't give a fuck (the feeling was mutual). In fact, they distinctly discouraged us from writing in cursive on our written exams because it was so difficult for them to read the writing of these young adults who had been habituated into writing in cursive for school assignments but never properly disciplined in its use. (As for spelling and grammar, I agonized through the mandatory courses therein at university because they were teaching what was obvious to me. These basic lessons had long been ingrained in those of us who had endured the classes of our high school's old-school crone, who--bless her heart--would berate the hell out of you if you didn't heed her lessons on the nuances of English grammar.)

I recently discovered some old notebooks from early elementary school. My second grade teacher required us to write a diary and hand it in. She would then write some comment in it. And, as my friend observed reading through them, I wrote responses to her comments, often rather deadpan.

It's actually quite neat to find this, because it's a record with specific dates of where I've been. When going through the cache of school notebooks that contained this Grade 2 diary, I discarded a few which had no dates. I suppose it doesn't really matter what the date was in this case, but now in the information age we like our precision, which is included tacitly with each electronic snippet we produce. With e-mails and electronic agendas and date-stamped photos, etc., if for some odd reason I wanted to know what I was doing on a specific day in the last handful of years, I have ways of finding out. On handwritten notes, I now write the date obsessively, even writing the date of an annotation of an earlier, dated, note (sometimes I'll even write on an undated note a date wherein I speculate the date of the original note). I refer to older documents often enough that it annoys the hell out of me when I find something undated, because usually when I'm doing so it's to establish a chronology. The dates in this old diary were likely a teacher requirement rather than a habit of my own, but it is nice to have them nevertheless.

One particular entry, dated February 24 (no relation), ninteen-mumble-mumble, is illustrative of both. I had written it in cursive, which I suspect was at the encouragement of the teacher. It was in pencil, not pen, but we did a lot of erasing and correcting in those early days. It tells the story of a grand fort my friend and I had built at his place.

To this day, I remember quite a few details about this event: one of my parents drove me over to his house, which was in the Glebe (the significance of which was unapparent to me at the time). I went up to the door, and his mother answered. My friend wasn't in yet, she said, but I could wait for him. In fact, I think he was building a fort and I was to wait for him inside while he finished up. Perhaps we did work on the fort, since I don't remember much of what happened between arriving, looking at some toys and discussing them but not playing with them, and being picked up to leave. Okay, so maybe I don't remember so much, but the event as a whole I certainly remember, and it is nice to have this contemporary documentation of it.

Discovering the journal entry, decades later, it reads out succinctly as "On such-and-such date, I went to so-and-so's house and we dug out a fort [stet]." The teacher commented on how it was a good idea to visit a friend, and I replied coldly beneath her comment, "it was his [idea]." That's at least consistent with my recollection that he had started the fort long before I arrived. Perhaps I should have elaborated further, but it's too late now.

I also illustrated the diary entry with diagrams of the fort, once in plan view from above, and again in close up (I made a lot of blank pages which I called "drawings" of snow in elementary school).

But aside from the precise date and the minimalist banter, the big surprise was one that had eluded me for years. It was a clue staring me, staring all of my young colleagues, in the face: the cursive thing was a sham. For all the propaganda telling us we needed to write in cursive, my teacher's notes to me were in print!
If only I had looked between the lines to see my teacher's misstep, paid attention not to what she said but what she did. All of that stress, all of that browbeating, all of those threats that we'd never make it in the real world if we didn't write in cursive. It was all a lie. The writing on the cake was in cursive but the invoice for it was in print!


My handwriting still resembles the spaghetti in the high school example. I guess by high school I had determined the precise balance of just how messily I could write and still make out what it said. That way I can get down as much of a thought as possible before the rest escapes my mind. I can write clearly when I need to, by the way, although straight lines of text still elude me.

Rather, I can print clearly, when I need to.Which isn't often. Cursive--I literally can't think of when I last used it, but probably not since before high school.

So kids, if you're reading this at home, and teachers tell you you'll need to learn cursive, don't listen. Learn to print legibly and learn to type. And for god's sake, learn to spell: all the good jobs these days require good communication skills and no one like to hire people who can't spell.

- RG>

1 comment:

Lynn said...

I had a meeting with my kid's teacher last week and she happened to mention that they will not be teaching cursive anymore. Considering how crappy my kids are at simple printing, I was happy to hear they wouldn't be adding more penmanship to the mix! I'll be teaching them touch typing instead.

I have a similar diary from my Grade 2 year - guess it was a standard Ontario thing. Mine is printed, though. Slipped under the radar on that one, I guess :).