It is almost certain that if you attended elementary school at any time after 1950 in the United States, you learned cursive writing from a teacher who was wholly unqualified to teach it. That’s because stodgy Mr. McCullen, with his runny nose and squeaky shoes, or crazy Mrs. Vierra, apt to become apoplectic at discovering a wad of chewing gum on the floor, would have attended a university where formal penmanship was no longer taught, a development that began in academia around the 1930s, when most professors began to accept only typewritten work from their students. Thus, if you are inclined to look with nostalgia upon the days when you were required to write in longhand “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” — a sentence which contains all the letters of the English alphabet — over and over again, until you got all the loopy letters right, then you will need to go back about nine decades to pinpoint the moment at which the art of cursive writing began its slow decline into obscurity.
In response to last month’s National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23, the topic of cursive writing has been trending on social media. Though this day of giddy celebration, started in 1977 to simultaneously mark John Hancock’s birthday and honor the achievement for which he is most widely known, is in my opinion definitely deserving of national-holiday-and-day-off-of work-and-school status, it also is a day of grief for those Americans who mourn the loss of an ancient skill.
Scholars trace the history of our modern cursive writing to the days of the Roman Empire, when cursive (from the Latin cursivis, which translates to running) was developed for use in business and correspondence. Though Roman cursive did make writing more efficient, since the letters looped and were thus formed more quickly, the script didn’t make reading much easier, as it did not include breaks between words but did include breaks between each letter. It was not very legible, and many historians have concluded that those Romans who wrote in this early form were early practitioners of medicine, known today as physicians (from the Latin physica).
In ensuing years, cursive writing underwent a series of changes, from the Carolinian miniscule developed by Benedictine monks (a style which included punctuation), leading to the Gothic style used by Gutenberg in the 1400s, which led to an Italian rebellion against the almost indecipherable Gothic script, resulting in the development of italics.
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It all ended up in the North American colonies as the form we generally recognize as longhand today. By the 1700s, good penmanship had become highly fashionable and an indication of class, profession, and even sex. In the New World, scribes copied the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in basically the same script taught by American educators for the next three centuries, though various methods of teaching penmanship were employed as educational theories progressed.
But by the time I entered grammar school in the early 1960s, penmanship was already on its way out, though my third-grade teacher Mrs. Walters clearly had not been notified of penmanship’s changing status in the academic world. I was one of those lucky students who wrote beautifully, when writing meant only the ability to form and join loops, and I was rewarded by the usually dour Mrs. Walters with smiles and extra library passes, which meant I had many opportunities to stroll by my best friend’s class down the hall and make faces at her from the open doorway.
But, alas, my penmanship has gone the way of handwriting in general. My loops have suffered a slow, agonizing decline. Today they are slanted lines reminiscent of twigs scattered haphazardly on paper, sometimes between the designated lines but not always, and I have gotten to the point where I can no longer read my own scribbles unless I squint really hard and try to remember what I must have been thinking at the time I wrote whatever it was that I wrote. But it doesn’t really matter, since I, like most other educators today, have my students turn in their work to a digital class management system. I record my comments in the system, and that makes everyone in the class a little happier, I think.
So I do not bemoan the loss of cursive writing any more than I pine for a return to chalk boards and manual typewriters. Some longhand proponents will counter my view by pointing out that if the next generation cannot write or read cursive, then they will not be able to sign their names or fully appreciate historical documents. The first point is a short-sighted argument, since handwritten signatures mean almost nothing today and will certainly mean nothing at all before the end of the next decade. And as for those historical documents, I do not remember having to memorize a handwritten preamble to the Constitution in the eighth grade. Future generations will enjoy seeing the original document in much the same way that today we might enjoy seeing an ancient Roman text written on papyrus, and I don’t think an inability to read the script, as long as a translation is available, will substantially diminish their appreciation of the object.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.