The Extinction of Handwriting and the Wobbly Travel Journal

Cell Phone
Electronic devices have infiltrated our wild places, but power supply is sometimes missing. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

In just a few short decades, something that was a big part of our culture will probably go extinct: the ability to write and read cursive.

Indiana is just one of the most recent states to join the list of forty-two others that have stopped requiring schools to teach the art of cursive handwriting — creating those flowing, joined-up letters — to elementary students. Instead, children will be taught keyboarding skills, based on the precept that almost all written communication today is done on computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.

There are still times, however, when putting a handwritten word to paper is necessary, such as when you need to sign your name on a loan document, a marriage license, or a credit card receipt. And handwriting is unlike some other antiquated skills, such as knowing how to make soap or thatch a roof: It’s a visual art, an individual statement of who we are and what’s in our characters.

And can you imagine not being able to read something as grand as the Declaration of Independence or as small as a travel postcard, spontaneously scrawled and sent on the run by a wandering friend or favorite relative?

Printing is enough

Some say that if a situation calls for a written signature or a handwritten thought, printing will suffice. We’re in a post-handwriting world, they would argue, and there’s no longer a need to spend time limited classroom hours teaching an obsolete art.

Cursive
New American Cursive® Penmanship Program.

As long as people can read and write printing on some basic level, then, does it matter if they cannot read or write cursive? Technology has become a dominant force in our lives, and bringing students up-to-date and teaching them how to grow with it is far more important than learning penmanship.

Writing is so much more

But block printing every letter takes far more time than putting down the looping letters of cursive. Imagine having to take lecture notes or trying to jot down your impressions out in a remote, wild place by printing rather than by writing; you’d never be able to keep up with the speaker or with your own thoughts.

Cursive is a lot more than an “irrelevant relic” of the twentieth century, Mark Bennett said recently in the Terre Haute, Indiana, Tribune-Star. Studies have found that handwriting boosts fine motor skills in children and may increase comprehension. And sometimes, computers and technological devices aren’t readily available, such as in New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina. Computers can lose power, for any number of reasons.

Fading Light
No electronic media can capture the nuances of scribbles made by fading light. ©Candice GaukelAndrews.

Adventure travelers, especially, are often in places where they’re off the power grid — and enjoying a place all the more for precisely that reason. It’s then that writing in a paper journal by script is what feeds the soul; creating a record of our travels that incorporates the bumps of our boat rides, the scribbles of our fading light, and the spills and smears of our coffee cups. No electronic writing apparatus can capture those tactile and sensory memories.

Perhaps most important of all, it’s not what you get out of handwriting, but what the recipient of your handwriting receives. We’ve all experienced that indefinable feeling that comes over us when someone takes the time to send a handwritten thank-you card, birthday greeting, or “wish you were here” postcard — written by the fluid, artful hand of a best friend or favorite uncle, replete with words written all the way to the bottom and continuing up the side because there wasn’t enough room to express all that was going on and how much you are missed.

If you ask me, no text message can quite duplicate the eloquence of that.

Do you think learning how to read and write cursive should be allowed to go extinct?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy

31 thoughts on “The Extinction of Handwriting and the Wobbly Travel Journal”

  1. In England, UK , only cursive (they call it connective) writing is taught from age 4. The UK seems to put an unnecessarily high priority on this connective writing.

  2. I was tortured by the study of cursive in elementary school. To this day I still write individual letters from bottom to top. Cursive proved much more difficult with that technique. I’m not sure how its disappearance in public schools makes me feel. I appreciate it as an art but I was never sure why I was doing it at the time.

  3. At the age that I have achieved, I have earned the right to be “set in my ways” so I am distrusful of all the advances that make us rely on an external source of power. Thus, I prefer newspapers and books to the internet and Kindle, learning basic arithmetic instead of relying on a calculator, and the continued teaching of cursive handwriting so that personal correspondence not seem impersonal. It would be sad indeed to lose the ability to read not only historic documents, but old family letters and records. There certainly is a place for electronic writing, especially for those whose handwriting is illegible, even to themselves, but I see no reason to discard the fine art of cursive writing.

  4. Educators encourage us to learn multiple languages and go on at length about the benefits of being bi- or multi-lingual. Why can’t we apply this thinking to learning how to write those languages? Can’t we learn how to write beautifully AND type?

  5. Great article and something which is being discussed at length in a lot of circles.
    Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on at the moment—something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront – read more at: http://lifehacker.com/5738093/why-you-learn-more-effectively-by-writing-than-typing

  6. I think it would be sad for future generations to lose the ability to read and write in cursive. My mother had beautiful penmanship (years of Catholic school, but even the nuns raved about her writing long into her adult life). As she was dying of cancer her beautiful penmanship began to disappear. I found it sad. She was losing a part of her.
    For schools to do away with teaching this art is to lose the ability to go back and read what was written generations before. It is to lose our history and our connection to the past.
    After my mother’s death, when I was going through her things it was wonderful to read the little cards and notes that she had received and saved from her grandfather. There were also notes that my great grandfather had written my great grandmother while he was serving in World War I. If I had not learned to read and write in cursive, I would have missed out on that experience.
    I will admit that my handwriting skills have gone to crap since we have entered the computer age but on the rare occasion that I do write rather than type I find it to be a more authentic (unedited) experience.

  7. I have a love/hate relationship with cursive but even so, the thought that many educators no longer consider it a necessary skill rocks my world. Should we have abandoned the instruction of addition and subtraction when the calculator became small enough to fit in a coat pocket? Nobody suggested that, to my knowledge.

    Unlike some left-handers, I wasn’t forced to switch, but I have distinct memories of those lined sheets of paper with the sample letter on the left – and dragging my left hand through my work, leaving a smudge behind…

  8. Some of the mementos I treasure most from my father, grandmothers and others who have passed on are samples of their handwriting, whether in a postcard, a recipe card or the wrapper on a cassette tape sampler specially made for me. Somehow, their script embodies them, long after they are gone. And even re: my own travel journals, there’s something about looking at the notebook I used at a given moment, the color of ink, the smears and stains of a well-used journal, that brings back memories of my trips that are more visceral than looking at typed black letters on a screen.

  9. Oh, I mourn our loss of hand-writing skills – not only the art of calligraphy, but the access to beautiful (or sad or haunting, exciting or passionate) memories written centuries ago in personal letters. Objective information will always be available, but without hand-writing we will miss all the emotion injected into that information.

  10. I also learned my cursive hand writing in a Catholic school, where the nuns demanded perfection. I also think it would be a shame if this beautiful and more efficient form of writing was lost. Wait a minute, maybe we shouldn’t teach the written or printed word at all ! I think computers, cell phones and other electronic devices use binary code to communicate. Maybe we would be wise to teach the next generation how to communicate using binary code. A future grocery list would look like this 00011000 11100011 10001100 10001001

  11. no..no..no.. absolutely not.. while yes.. i have a dell.. a mac.. and an iphone.. am a wicked techie.. a former elec engr.. and am sold out on technology.. i have pen and pad.. ever and always.. and am inkstained to the hilt.. and carry it to bed.. and do.. write in the dark.. and once awakened to find 3.. 3/4 filled pads and my arms and legs ink covered.. it was then and only then.. i could call myself.. a writer.. before then.. i called myself.. a catcher of words.. and glimpses.. cuz.. i am also.. a photographer.. call me crazy.. but not lazy.. and yes.. i am a gypsy.. too..

  12. I will miss cursive when it’s gone (as, sadly, I think it will be) but I have to admit that I only use it these days when scrawling notes during interviews. My writing has become so awful (partly due to tendonitis) that I usually print my messages on birthday cards and other missives meant for public consumption.

  13. Even if one can’t write in cursive, writing a note on a post card can still be achieved by printing. What’s *really* going to be lost is the ability to read something from when people routinely wrote in cursive. We’ll be poorly equipping the next generation of historians, who won’t be able to research what historical figures actually wrote. Even people who don’t need to read pre-computer documents as their profession may still want to read cursive, just to sort out a grandparent’s letters or research their genealogy.

    Also, there’s value in learning more than just the minimum required to get some kind of a job. We want students to learn math that they may not use just to exercise their thinking and reasoning abilities. Many high schools require a certain amount of foreign language, even if the students have no intention of traveling to countries where those languages are spoken–it’s done in the interest of breadth of knowledge, and also for the purpose of LEARNING, not just vocational training.

  14. I still take notes — travel notes and interview notes — with an old fashioned reporter’s notebook and a ballpoint pen. Usually, I can read my own handwriting, but since most others can’t, I usually print thank you notes and such.

    I hope handwriting never goes out of style, but it seems to be seriously compromised along with grammar and punctuation. And the study of history beyond the top three listings in a google search. Sigh.

  15. Evelyn,

    I’m with you; I travel only with a reporter’s notebook and pen. I use cursive to quickly jot down notes while I’m traveling – and it makes getting through airport security a lot easier!

  16. I always enjoy your posts, Candice. I, too, would be bereft if cursive handwriting and the ability to read it disappeared. For me, the handwritten note will never go out of style. As a travel writer, I like having writing options, but agree, that much would be lost if we didn’t have the ability to go back through our old handwritten journals to recapture the magic of our adventures.

  17. Wow, Candice. This is close to my heart. Cursive writing is so personal and often varies from writer to writer, like a thumbprint. It is the sensuous flow of the thought in graphic form. Of course Indiana is desperate for its public school children to acquire 21st Century techno skills, but at what loss?

  18. Evelyn, Just wait till batteries and electricity are in short supply. We dinosaurs with our pens and pads will be hot stuff again!

  19. I love to write notes. I take a new notebook on every trip, it gets dog eared and dusty, covered in wine, insect repellent, and sun cream, but its just as much part of the story as the words I write. I look back at it as an old friend when I’m home and often just flit through it now and again; its good for the soul.

  20. Travis, I love your handwriting, because it is so unique! I loved learning how to write cursive and I was such a perfectionist that I would practice it for hours. I looked forward to the learning and practicing the letter of the day in 2nd grade. However, I think it’s so much more important for our young KIPPsters to learn how to type, as you mentioned, Candy. Block letters are fine, as I want them to practice learning the skills they need to apply to college! Thank you for this article, Candy ;)

  21. After sharing with Candy a recent article in USA Today about China ramping up their students’ instruction of calligraphy, she suggested I post the gist of the article. China’s Ministry of Education believes that besides delivering better writing technique, calligraphy lessons also will “nurture patriotic feelings” and “improve the national quality”, with the idea that Western culture “is too strong in China now”. The objections from both teachers and students include the lack of qualified teachers and even more homework for kids who already spend four hours a night on it.
    Keep in mind that one must know 2500 characters to be considered literate, 4000 to be able to read a newspaper, and students are expected to learn 5-10,000.
    It would be interesting to know if other countries are facing the same dilemmas in this computer age and what their responses are.

  22. When I was a child I would have given 3 cheers for this news, but now I enjoy cursive writing and would feel sad to see another thing I take for granted go extinct.

  23. The handwritten word whether on paper or stone is what has allowed us to go back into history and learn about the past. If you go to any library you can see writings from centuries ago. It seems that information that went into computers in the 1980’s is already lost as a result of technology changes. Our company AmeriSus not only creates affordable Eco homes but we try to do everything we can to save the planet. Seeing how everyone constantly throws out used ball point pens we adopted a new approach to note taking where everyone in our company uses fountain pens. We no longer throw out pens. the glass ink bottles can be recycled and people are actually learning how to imorove their handwriting via the art of using a fountain pen.

  24. The smile of the day came when I read that future generations may not be able to read the Declaration of Independence because it is written in cursive!!!
    We know there are young people out there that can not add, subtract, multiply or divide without a calculator.

  25. Technology has enriched our lives in so many ways but it has also forced some of our most beloved methods of communicating out into the cold.

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