'Fess Up, Guys, Was Cursive ACTUALLY Necessary to Your Adulthood?

Because I mostly used it for writing "Tale of Two Cities" fan fiction in English class.
Publish date:
September 16, 2013
cursive, chicken scratch, cursive politics, handwriting

For some reason, the majority of my childhood memories start right around the age of six or so. I remember scattered things before then -- holding my brother for the first time, falling down the stairs and splitting my head open, playing a weird chase game with my friends on the playground that culminated in tying each other up with jump ropes (sup Freud) -- but those are mostly composites fabricated from photographs and stories other people told me.

My earliest, most vivid memory was probably seared into my brain with white-hot child-rage. I am six years old, I am sitting at our fake-wood kitchen table, and my mother refuses to let me go read outside until I learn how to write the capital letter "J" in cursive.

"It's hard!" I kept complaining to her. "It doesn't make any sense!"

Jesus, "G" had been ridiculous enough, with its random horns and curls, but J was just incomprehensible. It was all blooms and bulges, like some kind of half-rotting swamp creature. It was my number-one nemesis in the Capital Letter category, with "Z" being a close second.

"You have to," she told me. "Because if you don't learn it now, you'll never learn it later."

She was right. My "J"s still look like crap.

The reason my mother was suffering through this instead of a an elementary school teacher was because I was in the process that summer of skipping from the first to the third grade. Second grade, you may recall, mostly consisted of starting multiplication tables and learning how to write in cursive. In an effort to get me caught up with my peers, my mother spent hours every day that summer trying to get me to master the fancy loops of lower-case "k"s and whatever the hell Gollum thing is going on with lower-case "g."

Of course, because my mother's patience only goes so far, my cursive handwriting has always been a hodgepodge of horror. But she still thought cursive was a necessary life skill for adults to know, and she'd be damned if she'd let my incessant whinging keep me from at least a half-assed mastery of an Important Adult Skill.

Such is the logic touted by Representative Patricia Hurley, who co-sponsored a recently passed bill in North Carolina mandating that cursive be re-introduced into elementary school education. Hurley got the idea for the bill when she received a manila envelope of thank you notes from a classroom of fourth-graders and noticed that all of the kids had printed theirs.

"It struck me as strange they were not writing," Hurley told the Today show, "It was like these kids weren't educated." Earlier this year, she told the BBC something similar, adding, "My daughter is into computer stuff, code and stuff. I wouldn't want to learn it, but cursive writing, I use every day."

OK, leaving aside the issue of equating cursive with "seeming well-educated" -- that's a subject Marianne has covered quite eloquently in the past, though I'd love to pose the question to Hurley as to whether she noticed the kids', say, grammar, or vocab words, or even the courtesy they expressed in writing her thank you notes, rather than fixating on the fact that they could have made their penmanship slightly less legible.

My question, then, is around the subject of the use of cursive "as an adult," which is the argument favored by many parents, my own included. One mom also told the Today show, “I think it’s important to be able to write it to be a functioning member of society.”

Be honest, y'all. Apart from when it has been mandated by your middle-school English teacher, when have you ever used cursive in your adult life in order to "function?" Would print have sufficed just as well?

Don't get me wrong. I love cursive. Once I got over associating it with skipping second grade (and therefore the weird outcast period that comes from negotiating social skills in a different age group), it's been my medium of choice with which to write, particularly with fiction. Cursive lets my ideas flow faster, and I also write so messily in it that it renders basically everything unreadable to everyone but me. It's a strange sort of security blanket -- I never needed a lock on my journal as a kid, because I knew no one would have the patience to suss out which boys I'd been daydreaming about kissing.

And, OK, I mostly used it to write fan fiction while in class. Sue me.

I'm not disputing that cursive is a nice skill to have. But lots of things are nice skills to have. Cooking things more complex than kale salad, for example. Knitting a scarf for the winter. Doing laundry in a way that doesn't shrink your sweaters until you Hulk out of one of them during a business meeting. All of these are arguably more useful than cursive, and yet no one is passing bills mandating training in any of them.

Treating a particular handwriting style like it has some sort of moral weight just feels, to me, like fear of change for fear's sake. It's a lot like how I feel about the advent of eBooks: I love paperback novels and have no real desire to get a Nook or a Kindle, but I can see how eBooks have their uses. And both paperback and cursive advocates often employ that same "It's what we've always done," argument in order to act against whatever new, threatening technology people are employing to effectively communicate with each other. Like associate professor Jeffrey Reasertold the BBC, we're hanging onto cursive out of "nostalgia" instead of focusing on practices that could actually have cognitive benefits, like learning another language.

It is a little sad that we're losing a tradition that many people around my age grew up with. But spending time legally mandating cursive training in an effort to preserve it just seems a little silly. And if worst comes to worst, as Refinery 29 poses, and "the said machines [we use to write with] were to, you know, malfunction?"

We can always just use print.

If Kate wrote in cursive on Twitter, you'd only be able to read about one in three words: @katchatters