One of the most popular posts I have published on my blog has been: “Whatever Happened To Cursive Writing,” November 14, 2020. Another take on the shaky niche that cursive writing has in U.S. public schools comes from Drew Gilpin Faust in the October 2022 issue of The Atlantic. Faust is a professor of history at Harvard University.
It was a good book, the student told the 14 others in the undergraduate seminar I was teaching, and it included a number of excellent illustrations, such as photographs of relevant Civil War manuscripts. But, he continued, those weren’t very helpful to him, because of course he couldn’t read cursive.
Had I heard him correctly? Who else can’t read cursive? I asked the class. The answer: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Even more. What did they do about signatures? They had invented them by combining vestiges of whatever cursive instruction they may have had with creative squiggles and flourishes. Amused by my astonishment, the students offered reflections about the place—or absence—of handwriting in their lives. Instead of the Civil War past, we found ourselves exploring a different set of historical changes. In my ignorance, I became their pupil as well as a kind of historical artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a transformed world.
In 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in “keyboarding” assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world.
Although I was unaware of it at the time, the 2010 Common Core policy on cursive had generated an uproar. Jeremiads about the impending decline of civilization appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Defenders of script argued variously that knowledge of cursive was “a basic right,” a key connection between hand and brain, an essential form of self-discipline, and a fundamental expression of identity. Its disappearance would represent a craven submission to “the tyranny of ‘relevance.’ ”
Within a decade, cursive’s embattled advocates had succeeded in passing measures requiring some sort of cursive instruction in more than 20 states. At the same time, the struggle for cursive became part of a growing, politicized nostalgia for a lost past. In 2016, Louisiana’s state senators reminded their constituents that the Declaration of Independence had been written in cursive and cried out “America!” as they unanimously voted to restore handwriting instruction across the state.
Yet the decline in cursive seems inevitable. Writing is, after all, a technology, and most technologies are sooner or later surpassed and replaced. As Tamara Plakins Thornton demonstrates in her book Handwriting in America, it has always been affected by changing social and cultural forces. In 18th-century America, writing was the domain of the privileged. By law or custom, the enslaved were prohibited from literacy almost everywhere. In New England, nearly all men and women could read; in the South, which had not developed an equivalent system of common schools, a far lower percentage of even the white population could do so. Writing, though, was much less widespread—taught separately and sparingly in colonial America, most often to men of status and responsibility and to women of the upper classes. Men and women even learned different scripts—an ornamental hand for ladies, and an unadorned, more functional form for the male world of power and commerce.
The first half of the 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the number of women able to write. By 1860, more than 90 percent of the white population in America could both read and write. At the same time, romantic and Victorian notions of subjectivity steadily enhanced the perceived connection between handwriting and identity. Penmanship came to be seen as a marker and expression of the self—of gender and class, to be sure, but also of deeper elements of character and soul. The notion of a signature as a unique representation of a particular individual gradually came to be enshrined in the law and accepted as legitimate legal evidence.
By the turn of the 20th century, the typewriter had become sufficiently established to prompt the first widespread declarations of the obsolescence of handwriting. But it would be a long demise. In 1956, Look magazine pronounced handwriting “out-of-date,” yet cursive still claimed a secure place in the curriculum for decades.
Given a current generation of students in which so few can read or write cursive, one cannot assume it will ever again serve as an effective form of communication. I asked my students about the implications of what they had told me, focusing first on their experience as students. No, most of these history students admitted, they could not read manuscripts. If they were assigned a research paper, they sought subjects that relied only on published sources. One student reshaped his senior honors thesis for this purpose; another reported that she did not pursue her interest in Virginia Woolf for an assignment that would have involved reading Woolf’s handwritten letters. In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today.