From the halls of state legislatures to the pages of national newspapers, the debate over whether or not children should be taught how to write in cursive has been raging.  Testing organizations, which have routinely required a handwritten oath to attest that no cheating has occurred, are having to consider how to handle test takers who cannot write this paragraph or sign their names in cursive.

It’s not often that you see the states California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and South Carolina all on the same page, but these are some of the states that are bucking the trend to jettison cursive handwriting from elementary schools.  An article that ran in Time in June lists five reasons that cursive is good for us:

  1. some American institutions (e.g., post office, board of elections) still require signatures
  2. it’s good for our minds — not only for motor skills but also for developing different parts of our brain
  3. in the words of a New Jersey proposal — “So that students are able to read our most valued historical documents in their original form”
  4. some people who have learning disabilities or have suffered brain injuries have an easier time reading cursive than manuscript print
  5. it looks pretty

While some of these reasons may seem more emotional than scientific, psychologists and neuroscientists have also weighed in on this debate, concluding that “children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.”  This same June article in the New York Times also reported that brain imaging shows that when “children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”  And in a discovery most troubling to those of us who can type much faster than we can write legibly, there have been studies that show that writing lecture notes by hand rather than typing them “allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.”  According to the studies conducted by Princeton psychological scientists, students typing notes are much more likely to produce verbatim while those writing by hand are more likely to summarize the content, thereby creating these differences in learning and memory.

As someone who taught in a public school for many years, I sympathize with the opinion that too many curriculum decisions are being made by legislators rather than trained educators.  In addition, some of the fascination with cursive may just be an avenue for attacking the Common Core curriculum.  But as an archivist, I have to admit that I like the idea that we won’t lose the next generation as potential patrons just because they can’t read the handwriting in our old documents.  Otherwise, we’re really going to have to ramp up our efforts to crowdsource the transcribing of our precious documents before the volunteer labor pool dwindles to nothing!

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