Cursive May Die, But We'll Talk About It Endlessly First

As we take a moment to bemoan the impending demise of cursive, let's think of what else we stand to lose, and what we'll have forever. 

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Judith Thurman has penned a plea to preserve the dying art of cursive in the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. It's a plea complete with the image of another historical artifact, the Declaration of Independence (all the better to celebrate our nation's birthday last week!). It is a nice plea, a poignant plea, a desire to keep something of the past along with us as we hurtle into the future. And, yes, maybe if we lose cursive, we lose something—what we don't lose is the opportunity to worry about yet another thing that may become extinct in our lifetime. What we don't lose, either, is another chance to talk about cursive.

Being sad about the predicted death of cursive is not exactly new. A little over a year ago, Kate Zezima made "The Case for Cursive" in a much-discussed piece in The New York Times, writing, "For centuries, cursive handwriting has been an art. To a growing number of young people, it is a mystery." She goes on to worry that if kids are no longer taught cursive—public schools in most states are phasing it out—they may grow up without important motor control training (Wii?) and won't even be able to read the Constitution.

(As a matter of fact, it's not just cursive that's a problem, at least for this writer: I can barely hold a pen against a page, and when I do what emerges looks like something from the mind of a maniac; even I have trouble translating sometimes. The cursive I learned in school would be mortified about what it's become, if it wasn't already on its deathbed, too weak to complain. But my motor control is great, thank you.)

Yet, many things common in ancient times are a mystery to us today, and we appear no worse for wear—it's not like man was born with a feather quill in his hand and the inherent ability to write script (the creation of modern cursive is generally credited to an Italian named Albus Manutius, who originated the form of script back in the 1400s). And plenty of documents that existed prior to our ability to read them have been translated so that we can know what they said. The price of progress, after all, means that some of what came before will be lost; other things will be changed and, we hope, bettered.

That's not to say we can't feel nostalgic about a "dying art." Like many of us, Thurman, who writes the recent piece in the New Yorker, has fond remembrances of learning cursive, making letters round and giving them the appropriate loops and curves, things we too felt as we practiced script on that special beige paper with the dotted lines intended to help us line up the letters properly. (Remember Ramona Quimby, from the Beverly Cleary series that we read around that same time, learning to make her Qs and giving them whiskers and little cat ears, too?) As we got older, we also learned how to type in typewriting class, and how to drive cars in driver's ed: These are two more skills that have mostly gone defunct in this particular writer.

In 2011, Brian Palmer followed Zezima's piece with his own thoughts on the matter in Slate, saying that cursive will never die, and all this caterwauling about it is beside the point:

Every few years someone publishes a story predicting—and lamenting—the demise of cursive writing, and every year that story completely misses the point. The issue isn't whether cursive writing will survive. It's whether we'll be using one kind of cursive writing or a billion kinds.

Educators couldn't kill off the art of cursive writing even if they wanted to. How do I know? Because humans have an innate urge to increase the efficiency of their communications. The day after some caveman figured out how to paint a bison, his smart-aleck neighbor figured out a way to do it faster. Writing started with drawings of objects, then transitioned to symbols to represent syllables. Eventually, the modern alphabet developed, relying on characters to stand in for individual consonant and vowel sounds. Cursive, which is nearly as old as writing itself, is just another innovation.

Some of what he's saying is, we think, indisputable: We're all going to need to know how to write, to some extent, on something, and it's better if there's a standard so others can read it. But will it be called cursive? When, in fact, was the last time you left someone a note, squiggly or printed, on a piece of paper? Just like horses and carriages and probably someday cars, too, techniques like cursive and the implements by which we write it, and the paper we write it on, will be supplanted by something new, though it will be a technique of its own: Typing on keyboards, or texting on iPhones, or God knows what else we'll come up with. Which gets at another aspect of this story: The progress that we bemoan is human-created progress. We created e-books. We built cars and spaceships and computers. We made phones and all of the various methods by which we can communicate other than speech, or pen and paper writing—and way back when, we created pens and made paper out of trees. This is all our own fault!

In 2009 Anna Jane Grossman's book, Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By, was published. In it she listed more than 100 things that she expected to go away (or already had) in our lifetimes—"Blind Dates, Mix Tapes, Getting Lost, Porn Magazines, Looking Old, Operators, Camera Film, Hitchhiking, Body Hair, Writing Letters, Basketball Players in Short Shorts, Privacy, Cash, and, yes, Books." (Note that only four of her books remain available on Amazon.) Also, landlines. Airport goodbyes. Rolodexes. And, yes, cursive.

But when we talk about cursive we're talking about something bigger and reflective of society as a whole (this is true when we talk about e-books, too, I think): We're talking about the loss of a certain way of life in which quality is valued over quantity and maybe we'd stop and smell the roses every now and again or at least write a handwritten letter once in a while, with our i's perfectly dotted, maybe with a spritz of perfume on the paper, too. It's all very romantic, which isn't exactly how we viewed cursive in elementary school, when it was kind of, well, a chore. Thanks to its new "endangered" quality, its election as the "artisanal" form of writing these days, it has been brushed with a new, fancy gloss. Its defenders are quite vocal. This, too, is a kind of modern trend: The second something becomes a dying art or a discontinued product or somehow "retro" (take a look at the vintage typewriter booth at the Brooklyn Flea), it becomes valued that much more.

There's an upside to this, which is that bemoaning the death of cursive means that we'll do our best to try to save it, or at least, it will be continued to be practiced at some small liberal arts colleges or in special workshops flocked to by intellectual types with tote bags. It will be discussed, certainly, even if it's not practiced. Talking about how something might become extinct is a last-ditch societal effort toward putting it back in the public consciousness. But why, most of all, do we want to save cursive? It all comes back to us, obviously. The death of cursive means not only that we're all going to die, but also that the way in which we lived will someday hardly even be a memory, maybe or maybe not deciphered by those who come after us. Ouch.

The greatest and most telling irony, though, is that cursive is already sort of dead, or at least has a foot in the grave. (Maybe we'll learn it, like Latin, but will we use it?) As a case in point, take a look at all these articles about cursive on websites, circulating by way of social media. When the way in which you write about what you're trying to save doesn't even uphold the standard, perhaps the point has been made. At the same time, there is one thing that will not go away until the last human breathes his last breath: Complaining about what's going to go away next. We'll always have that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.