On the back cover of a 1967 album by Robert Pete Williams, beneath a photo of the Mississippi blues musician, appears a signature rendered illegibly in a strained combination of print and script. The lines shake with a careful effort which yields results only a step better than his the X his sharecropper father likely made. Takoma records trumpeted Williams’ illiteracy—with the printing of the signature they signaled to the audience the thrill of a hardened criminal life and raw emotion of the primitive musician. But the single line of scrawl is more deeply emblematic of the evils of the segregated society.
The signature, the ability to sign one’s own name with grace and confidence, has long been an essential marker of society. Today more and more I meet high school students who, though they can read, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, are ashamed whenever they are confronted with the need to sign a document. Students are sometimes too embarrassed to admit that they can’t read a piece of an important historical document or the comments of a teacher who writes in script. Script is not seen by students as some quaint relic of the past. Even among kids for whom academic achievement is hardly “cool,” students recognize the pedigree that the knowledge of the cursive alphabet and the ability to write it fluently represent. Cursive has become a status marker.
The mid-sized parochial school where I work provides an interesting view into this phenomenon because the feeder junior highs are so varied. The students who come from the Catholic elementary schools all know script and write it automatically because that is what was required of them. They possess a neater penmanship in both print and script. And as someone who has looked at a great many notebooks, I have observed that they have much greater mastery of the page and they are more astute with the spatial needs of good notetaking. In addition, they do not appear to have sacrificed learning other important skills—they are just as academically competent as their peers and just as likely to know typing.
The students who do not know script come from public schools, most often those designated as “failing.” The Common Core has left the teaching of cursive off the standards, but the trend to pass over penmanship instruction has been building for years. Many of the students who I teach had workbooks for learning cursive that were rarely used and never completed. Sustained instruction in handwriting was put off to the side and because script was not required for everyday classwork, students never had a chance to practice. I have a student in a remedial reading class so eager to learn script that she has had friends bring workbooks in for her to use. Another student, a college-bound junior, made it a personal goal to learn script before heading to college. While these autodidacts may be a bit unusual, they exemplify the feeling that students are denied something of value. Most likely these sacrifices were made in favor of are the inordinate emphasis is placed on testing—enough to cut out all kinds of enrichment and even whatever basics are not tested.