As promised last week, today my blog is about the third book I read in March. It’s about the history of handwriting and the debate over whether children today should be taught cursive writing. I say, “Yes!” and I’ll explain why later.
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, by Anne Trubek
“Put your John Hancock here.” How many times have we of a certain age heard that? We, of course, immediately know that is a euphemism for our signature. But does a child of the 21st century know that? I understand that children today don’t have a clue what “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” mean. Yikes!
I discovered The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, by Anne Trubek while looking for a different book. I found this 154-page book fascinating and thought-provoking.
Trubek meticulously takes the reader on a journey through history. She shares facts about cuneiform and hieroglyphics. (Did you know that most cuneiform clay tablets can fit in your hand? In photographs, they look huge.) She explains how tedious and time-consuming it was for Sumerians to learn how to write and the hours people in ancient oral-based civilizations spent on memorization.
Egyptians invented writing on papyrus. When the Greeks adopted that practice, though, their papyrus was inferior and their scrolls were smaller. (Did you know that the size of ancient Greek scrolls has a bearing on literature today? For instance, the size of a scroll dictated the length of a play. Who knew?)
Socrates was anti-writing. He maintained that if people learned how to write, they’d lose their skill for remembering the spoken word. There’s probably some truth to that.
People in oral civilizations couldn’t look things up like we can today, so they developed elaborate mnemonics and also used additive structure (and… and… and) to help them remember important things. An example of this can be found in the Book of Genesis in The Bible: “In the beginning God created… and… and….”
It was the Romans who stopped using papyrus and started using parchment. Parchment made it easier to make books. Trubek says that bookstores had been established in Rome by the first century B.C.E. Take a moment to visualize that. It makes me smile.
Trubek talks about the development of the various scripts and the high-esteem held for scribes back in the day. She points out that the invention of the printing press put scribes out of business; however, the ones with good penmanship reinvented themselves and traveled around offering handwriting schools.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading handwritten documents from the 1700s and 1800s. I admire the elaborate and visually beautiful handwriting of the 1800s; however, it is sometimes difficult to decipher. One of the most interesting parts of Trubek’s book was about the evolution of handwriting in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although I’ve admired the lovely handwriting of the 1800s, I’d never researched why and how it was replaced with our contemporary handwriting.
Briefly, Platt Rogers Spencer developed that flowing, fancy script we associate with the 1800s. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, think about the Coca-Cola logo. That’s an example of Spencerian script.) Spencer proclaimed that having good penmanship was a sign that you were a Christian, educated, and a proper person. His students were advised to practice their penmanship six to twelve hours a day. (I’m sorry, Mr. Spencer, but life’s too short!)
I’m reminded that in my great-grandfather’s daybooks from the 1890s and first decade of the 1900s, he occasionally mentioned that his children or grandchildren had gone to writing school that evening. That writing school was conducted at night in the Pine Hill one-room schoolhouse in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Notice the curly-ques Great-Grandpa made in his capital F and capital W. Also, he randomly capitalized words. I learned from Trubek’s book that such practice was part of the Spencerian script.
A.N. Palmer came along and made modifications to Spencerian script after he went to work for the Iowa Railroad and saw how time-consuming it was for the employees to record all the details required by industrialization. He removed all the curly-ques required by Spencerian script and made handwriting much easier after 1920.
Trubek’s book also covers such things as the collecting of autographs, which started in the mid-1800s, and graphology, which was started by a French priest in the 1800s.
The science of analyzing handwriting for evidentiary purposes in a court of law has had to evolve over the years. One used to be able to use the force one’s fingers used to press typewriter keys to prove who typed a document. The wear and tear on the parts of a typewriter could prove on which typewriter a document was created.
Consider that for a moment. I’m showing my age, but I learned to type on a manual typewriter. Now, the justice system is faced with determining the true identity of a person who electronically “signs” his or her name. How things have changed in the last 50 years!
When I think about handwriting and how people rarely hand write letters today, it makes me sad. Last year, my sister and I assisted a 97-year-old friend who wanted to preserve the letters he and his wife wrote to one another during the Korean War. What a treasure those letters are! We organized the letters in chronological order and placed them in archival binders. Hopefully, some of his descendants will see the value in those letters. When people go off to war now, they can telephone and text their loved ones. Few of those communications are saved for posterity.
In her book, Trubek points out that if a child isn’t taught cursive writing by the fourth grade, an important window of opportunity will close. She says that it is by that age that a typical child needs to master cursive in order for him or her to achieve cognitive automaticity.
Trubeck says if cursive isn’t mastered by then, the child will continue to struggle with handwriting. It will forever be a skill the person has trouble with because they didn’t learn it early enough for it to become something they can do without thinking about it. She says the “up” side of this is that this child might be able to type faster than someone who is better at handwriting.
To that, I would say it’s a big price to pay. This person might be able to get a higher-paying job later on, but what if he or she grows up and wants to do historical research for pay or for fun?
Not being able to read handwritten primary sources will definitely be a drawback. There’s no substitute for primary sources in historical or genealogical research. In my own genealogical research I’ve found many instances where names in census and other records have been misread when they’ve been converted to typed records. When the typed copies are taken for fact, misinformation is perpetuated.
In the arena of the debate over teaching cursive or not, I still come down on the side of teaching it for the very reason I just gave.
Do you think children should be taught cursive?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and why you come down on one side or the other. Or, perhaps you don’t have an opinion.
For my readers in other English-speaking countries
Is there a debate about continuing to teach children cursive writing in other English-speaking countries aside from the United States?
Since my last blog post
I borrowed another book about handwriting from the public library. Power Penmanship: An Illustrated Guide to Enhancing Your Image Through the Art of Handwriting Style, by Janet Ernst, helped me address several (well, actually, six letters I’d gotten a bit sloppy in writing.)
I blame taking shorthand in high school for ruining my handwriting. Since that was 50 years ago, I decided it was time to stop making excuses and start making corrections. After spending just 10 minutes a day for six consecutive days, I was able to see some improvement. I think we never get too old to try to improve something about ourselves.
After much brainstorming about the opening scenes in the historical novel I’m writing, The Heirloom (working title), I have started working on a new plot angle. I’d hoped to switch gears from brainstorming to rewriting those opening scenes last week, but my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis in the UK) relapse continued to drastically limit my work. When my energy level is this low, it’s tempting to stop trying to write; however, I was feeling a little better by the time the weekend rolled around. I’m back to work on The Heirloom as of Saturday. My journey as a writer surely is bumpy!
Until my next blog post
I hope you have the energy to do all the things you need or want to do.
Remember the people of Ukraine.