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Why Are We Still Teaching Kids Cursive?

It's pretty, but only if you practice all the time...which no one does.

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.

If you've recently seen a teen text or even a toddler wield a smartphone, it's clear that the newest generation will have no trouble communicating in the way most of us do: typing and text.

Yet many lawmakers, parents, and educators are wringing their hands over the loss of another form of communication: cursive handwriting. Under the Common Core standards—the core curriculum for language and math adopted by 42 states—cursive writing is no longer a requirement. And it makes sense: the loopy letters are unnecessary in pretty much all modern communication.

But some states and local school boards still require students to learn it, and the utility of cursive is an ongoing debate across the country. All students must still learn to write by hand cleanly and legibly, and considering most of us rarely lift a pen these days to begin with, why is cursive writing still a thing?

English cursive in its most basic definition—handwriting where the letters loop and conjoin in each word—has been around for centuries, but really had its moment in the 1800s, when students spent years learning, practicing, and perfecting their script. Standardized scripts—like the Spencerian script and later the Palmer script—were learned to allowed for quicker writing that was still legible (and pretty):

An example of Spencerian script. Image: WikiMedia Commons

It made sense at the time: the bulk of one's communication, be it for work or communicating with friends and family, was still done by handwriting. Your writing needed to be neat, legible, and speedy so you could get things done.

Technology has threatened to extinguish the art of cursive writing ever since then, as the ballpoint pen (which allowed ink to dry more quickly, reducing the risk of smudging if printing), typewriter, and computer edged out the need for pretty swirls of script. But it's still remained standard in many school curricula, despite the fact that it's rarely (if ever) used in modern society. Lots of students who were taught cursive in grade school grow up and completely forget it. (I learned it, but please don't ask me to write an uppercase G or Z.) So what's driving our dedication to a largely useless technology?

Lots of cursive proponents cite cognitive and learning benefits to cursive writing. It's true that a number of studies have shown writing by hand lights up different parts of our brain than typing, builds better reading and memory skills, and can even make us more creative. Learning to hold a pencil and write by hand also builds fine motor skills in growing kids. But all of these studies are showing the benefits of writing by hand, not of handwriting, or cursive. And since all curricula still teach kids how to write by hand, the benefits will remain as the loopy letters die out.

Another common concern is security: kids who don't learn cursive won't even be able to do a half-cursive, half-printed signature like most people do today, and some experts say printed signatures are easier to forge. But signatures have never been foolproof, and as more advanced forms of identification—like biometrics—become increasingly ubiquitous, the need for a unique, pretty John Hancock will continue to fade.

Then there's the Constitution argument.

"Documents that are fundamental to our nation's history and laws, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were drafted in cursive," reads a bill introduced in New Jersey this year to make cursive writing mandatory in the state curriculum. "So that students are able to read our most valued historical documents in their original form ... this bill requires that cursive be included in the public school curriculum."

Students not being able to decipher the Constitution in its original text—because that's such a normal, daily activity in modern life—has been a favorite concern of lawmakers seeking to reintroduce cursive writing, but even that's misplaced. Experts say kids can learn to read cursive without writing it, in about an hour.

When you shake through the arguments, it becomes clear that the driving force keeping cursive alive is really just nostalgia and romanticism. As an art form, there's definitely a benefit to cursive writing, and many artists take up lettering or calligraphy as their craft. But for the average person, it's a skill that will likely not be retained and will definitely not be needed. Luckily, lots of educators and experts agree, and our national curricula has abandoned the archaic practice. If the trend continues, we may see cursive writing soon join its former companion—the quill and inkwell—in the annals of history where it belongs.