Is Keeping Cursive Writing Worth the Fight?

It was Edward Bulwer-Lytton who once coined the iconic phrase, “Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.” A bold but true statement, its heft has been evident in everyone who dared to pick up a pen.  Over the years since his 1839 proclamation, the advent of new technology has taken both the reach and power of language to higher heights. As the changes and uses of technology have exploded over the last 30 years, both individuals and entities have taken notice of the change and have succeeded in incorporating new ways of communicating that these advances have spawned.

Not to be left behind, public education in America has sought to harness these innovations and subsequently “phase out” more traditional forms of educating. But at what cost? Nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia have started adapting Common Core Standards; an effort synchronize what children learn across the spectrum and to ensure that all the stakeholders in a child’s education are aware of what the child will be learning in the classroom. While the theory of this approach is commendable, the actual practice seeks to squeeze out some mainstays that are veritable “rights of passage” in school. One of these mainstays is cursive writing. I know what you’re thinking. “Who uses cursive anymore? Everything is online- print and typewritten communication are the dominant forms of writing now.” While I appreciate the rationale by which people employ to make such statements, the implications of failing to teach and require cursive writing are far-reaching.

Oftentimes we take for granted the fact that we can view historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence and read the almost perfect penmanship with ease. The question you should be asking is, “what if I were not able to read it?” It’s too easy to dismiss the concept of cursive by simply saying “we don’t use it enough in real life.” I believe, however, that everyone who makes that claim has the luxury of having mastered it already. Every one of us can point to at least have a dozen concepts that we were taught in our formative years that have no tremendous impact on what we do now. There are aspects of math that I both have never and will never use. There are historical facts and documents that I have been exposed to that have no pressing significance in my life; there are formulas in Science that add no day-to-day value or enhance my existence. What about Shakespeare? How much has your cursory knowledge of his plays and sonnets gotten you?

But what “standard of measurement” do we use to determine what stays and what goes? I submit that the teaching and learning of cursive is not an exercise in futility, it is the practice of a valuable skill; one which still deserves our attention. Cursive writing provides many useful technical functions: it helps students in fine-tuning their micro motor skills, it teaches “part-to-whole” connections between letters and completed words, and, it can even improve spelling (which, coincidentally, is ANOTHER skill that is nowhere to be found under the adaptation of Common Core Standards).

The future will no doubt be full of wonderfully inventive ideas that will continue to help us streamline nearly every part of our lives. In addition to providing our children and their children with so many things that we did not have, we need to be sure that they also have things that we DID have as well. Imagine a world where you ask someone for their “John Hancock” and you are greeted with puzzled looks and confusion. If we continue on this course, we may not have to imagine for long. – Olu Burrell

Olu Burrell is a Howard University Alum who works as High School English Instructor in Washington, DC. He is involved with the DC Area Writing Project and is a performance poet, writer, and social activist. He is currently developing a food blog with his wonderful wife, Farran, KismetCuisine.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @oluburrell.

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6 Comments

  • Stephanie

    Reply Reply July 12, 2011

    Thank you for your well thought out defense for keeping cursive writing in schools. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Cursive writing is not obsolete, and it is needed on legal documents, checks, and any other binding agreement. Of course there is such thing as an electronic signature, but cursive writing is a necessary skill for all adults. While technology is great, it still has it’s place in school systems and should be used when necessary.

  • Aponda

    Reply Reply July 12, 2011

    A lot of the things we learned in school had broader effects than whatever direct benefits we thought we were learning at the time. They cutting back what they think should be taught and I’m beginning to think public school students are being set up for failure.

    When they stopped making art, music, and p.e. requirements, public school students suffered mentally and physically. Meanwhile, these things are still being valued and taught in private schools. As this generation of public school students come into the adulthood, they’re having a bigger and bigger gap between what they’ve learned in school vs. what they are expected to know in the workplace, military, and college. It’s time we put a stop to our students being short changed.

  • Shannon Evans

    Reply Reply July 12, 2011

    Very well written. It actually amazes me that this is up for debate. Unfortunately, I think this is one of those things where the importance won’t be realized until it’s lost. While we don’t use cursive every day, it is extremely necessary.

  • Shunda

    Reply Reply July 13, 2011

    Totally agree with this article. I work with a number of people in their early 20s that struggle during meetings to take basic notes. Studies also show that the brain works differently when one is writing vs. working on a computer. If schools stop teaching cursive, the effect on the type of thinking triggered by writing is going to suffer and who knows how large that impact will be.

  • Debra

    Reply Reply August 11, 2011

    There are many people who say that younger people mainly use print because everything is becoming electronic. I am 19 and ALL the writing I do is in cursive. My print is very sloppy now because cursive is all that I use. I am very against cursive not being taught in schools.

  • Jhonna

    Reply Reply December 26, 2011

    Yea, Stephanie, I think you made a good point. Simply knowing how to sign your name is essential professionally, economically and – heck – socially. As a once teacher, teaching students cursive is an added piece to the mandated pressure of NCLB. Unfortunately, many teachers have to fulfill expectations in reading, writing (concepts, structure and theory) and math that may or may not be realistic for the group of students they serve. Other very important subjects are being pushed to the side, because those subjects doesn’t (yea, right) lead to better test scores. But I say – absolutely! – cursive is important and necessary. Considering the pressure of testing…you have to question if this is really an issue of being obsolete or just extra work? I think our challenge (instead of being mad at the system) is to encourage ourselves (parents, friends of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) to make sure cursive is being taught, even if its beyond the test.

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