Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Another slant on cursive writing

If you had to read this column in my original handwriting, you wouldn't have gotten this far. Simply put, my cursive looks like a cross between blood-splatter evidence and a Gordian knot of scribbling.

I was born left-handed. But in the 1950s the nuns of the Holy Order of the Blessed State Prison took a dim view of southpaws. Any attempt to use one's satanic left hand to write was met with a slap to the back of the head and a firm whack upon one's knuckles with a ruler.

Forced to write right-handed has led to a lifetime of mangled hen-scratching. But what did I decide to do for a living, where for more than 40 years not even I can often discern my own note-taking? It looks like a code not even the National Security Agency could crack.

But that still doesn't diminish a rare agreement with Gov. Rick Scott's ally. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has started a minor controversy over her decision to introduce the teaching of cursive writing to early grade-schoolers as part of Florida's Common Core State Standards.

It's a good idea — minus the waterboarding, the brass knuckles and the scourging at the pillar.

If you are looking for some definitive, quantitative justification for Stewart's cursive crusade, you probably won't find it.

It is certainly true today's youth are able to get by just fine communicating by keyboard, which reminds me that when I got into the newspaper racket I didn't even know how to type. But that's another story.

Chances are if you are a parent of a child under 35 or so, most written communication from them comes in block printing resembling a ransom note. Cursive has fallen so far out of vogue most young adults can't even comprehend it. And somehow that seems embarrassingly wrong.

So why impose cursive on children when there are so many other demands and pressures to be found in the elementary school classroom?

While there is disagreement on this point among education scholars, there is a school of thought that cursive writing helps improve reading and critical thinking skills. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, since the physical act of expressing oneself in cursive requires a modicum of thought as how one wants to express an idea.

Cursive also underscores the notion of civility and good manners. Or more fundamentally, it's a sign of maturity. We may live in an email-driven society, but taking the time to write (in cursive) a thank-you note, or letter of condolence, or congratulations are sort of expected norms of behavior among grownups.

Mary Jane Tappen, vice chancellor of standards and instruction for the Florida Department of Education, argued that by not understanding script, children are unable to read historical documents such as the U.S. Constitution. But this could be a slippery slope.

While our Founding Fathers were great men, they were lousy spellers at least by today's standards, substituting Pensylvania for Pennsylvania, chusing for choosing, controul for control and it's for its. But they were in a hurry, and Ben Franklin had not yet invented spell check.

Even Abraham Lincoln would not have fared well in a spelling bee. The Great Emancipator spelled it immancipation, while also fumbling such words as colatteral, prossecution and disclosiers. Where's a 2-by-4-wielding sister of the Sacred Knee-Capper when you really need one?

One of the great moments in cursive occurred in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. It's a crackerjack document, no doubt about it. But would our perceptions toward the declaration be just a tad different were it not for the prominent signature of one particular founder?

Suppose that instead of its flowing elegant twists and twirls, the Massachusetts revolutionary had signed his name like one of today's teenagers: #johnhancock?

Whether he was simply showing off to declare his unambiguous opposition to British rule, or his signature is so noticeable merely because he was the first to sign the document, this much is pretty clear — John Hancock's John Hancock is a cursive thing of beauty.

This is the Mona Lisa of handwriting.

Then again, perhaps Hancock was inspired to make his cursive crystal clear because standing directly behind him was a no-nonsense sister from the Divine Order of the Gallows tapping a pointer into her palm.

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