If Cursive Is Really Dying, Only a Few Will Mourn

A New York Times story inspires more jeers than nostalgia

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Earlier this week, Katie Zezima for The New York Times reported that cursive handwriting seems to be dying off. Fewer people are using it, and teachers are spending less time making sure their students know it. Zezima quotes an elementary school principal who wonders, "Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?"

Likely to the dismay of handwriting enthusiasts, the Times story has been greeted with a big ol' raspberry in the blog world. Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing summarizes Zezima's piece thusly: "Kids today aren't getting as much instruction in cursive. So mumble mumble mumble... the slow heat death of the Universe. Or something."

Jen Doll at The Village Voice echoes these thoughts, writing that "cursive sucks! And, in our modern day keyboard- and smartphone-focused lifestyles, we simply don't need it." And Dave Noon at the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money torpedoes the Times story, particularly an early paragraph where Zezima lays out some of the existing concerns about the decline of cursive.

Zezima's paragraph:

Might people who write only by printing -- in block letters, or perhaps with a sloppy, squiggly signature -- be more at risk for forgery? Is the development of a fine motor skill thwarted by an aversion to cursive handwriting? And what happens when young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?

Point by point, Noon refutes these arguments in what we, at least, took to be a convincing manner, calling out "the dubious premise that cursive script supplies a graphic fingerprint" and the negligible role cursive plays in "proximal and distal muscle development." (Also, we'd add, hasn't the Constitution beenĀ typed up by now?)

Still, the story has its defenders. Victor Mair at the blog Language Log draws an interesting comparison between cursive English and handwritten Chinese characters, which are being pushed even further toward obsolescence by computer and smartphone technology. Edward Tenner at The Atlantic points out that the relationship between handwriting technique and neural development is actually pretty well-supported.

And cursive has a friend in onetime libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, who went to bat for longhand last month. Writing at his Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog "The Barr Code" (really!), Barr offered a defense of cursive that earned points for sentiment, if not always airtight logic:

Take a moment to marvel at the majestic words of our Declaration of Independence, preserved for prosperity in the flowing, longhand -- yes, cursive -- writing style with which our Founding Fathers communicated in the late 18th Century. Then picture in your mind's eye the same document written in the simplistic, block letters of a contemporary second-grader.

Barr concluded with a word of praise for "the students and professional from other countries who still must learn such 'irrelevant' skills as mathematics, grammar, writing, history, literature, physics and foreign languages." We're not sure anyone is proposing to eliminate those seven subjects from school curricula, but if they are--for the record--Bob Barr is against it.

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