Today’s Students Haven’t Learned To Read Cursive. Is This A Problem?

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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.

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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.

I continued questioning: Didn’t professors make handwritten comments on their papers and exams? Many of the students found these illegible. Sometimes they would ask a teacher to decipher the comments; more often they just ignored them. Most faculty, especially after the remote instruction of the pandemic, now grade online. But I wondered how many of my colleagues have been dutifully offering handwritten observations without any clue that they would never be read.

What about handwriting in your personal lives? I went on. One student reported that he had to ask his parents to “translate” handwritten letters from his grandparents. I asked the students if they made grocery lists, kept journals, or wrote thank-you or condolence letters. Almost all said yes. Almost all said they did so on laptops and phones or sometimes on paper in block letters. For many young people, “handwriting,” once essentially synonymous with cursive, has come to mean the painstaking printing they turn to when necessity dictates.

During my years as Harvard president, I regarded the handwritten note as a kind of superpower. I wrote hundreds of them and kept a pile of note cards in the upper-left-hand drawer of my desk. They provided a way to reach out and say: I am noticing you. This message of thanks or congratulations or sympathy comes not from some staff person or some machine but directly from me. I touched it and hope it touches you. Now I wonder how many recipients of these messages could not read them.

“There is something charming about receiving a handwritten note,” one student acknowledged. Did he mean charming like an antique curiosity? Charming in the sense of magical in its capacity to create physical connections between human minds? Charming as in establishing an aura of the original, the unique, and the authentic? Perhaps all of these. One’s handwriting is an expression, an offering of self. Crowds still throng athletes, politicians, and rock stars for autographs. We have not yet abandoned our attraction to handwriting as a representation of presence: George Washington, or Beyoncé, or David Ortiz wrote here!

There is a great deal of the past we are better off without, just as there is much to celebrate in the devices that have served as the vehicles of cursive’s demise. But there are dangers in cursive’s loss. Students will miss the excitement and inspiration that I have seen them experience as they interact with the physical embodiment of thoughts and ideas voiced by a person long since silenced by death. Handwriting can make the past seem almost alive in the present.

In the papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., I once found a small fragment with his scribbled name and his father’s address. Holmes had emphasized the significance of this small piece of paper by attaching it to a larger page with a longer note—also in his own hand—which he saved as a relic for posterity. He had written the words in 1862 on the battlefield of Antietam, where he had been wounded, he explained, and had pinned the paper to his uniform lest he become one of the Civil War’s countless Unknown.

But sometimes handwritten documents tell stories that their creators neither intended nor understood. James Henry Hammond maintained a ledger in which he kept scrawled records of the births and deaths of the enslaved population on his South Carolina plantation. Because he included the names of the newborns’ parents and often some additional commentary, it was possible for me to reconstruct family ties among generations of people forbidden to keep their own written history. At one point, Hammond purchased an 8-year-old boy named Sam Jones to work in the house, changing his name to “Wesley” in the process. Nearly three decades later, Hammond recorded the birth of a son to Wesley—a child to whom Wesley had given the name “Sam Jones.” As he recorded the baby’s birth, Hammond was in all likelihood unaware of Sam/Wesley’s act of memory and resistance. More than a century and a half later, we can still say Sam Jones’s name.

All of us, not just students and scholars, will be affected by cursive’s loss. The inability to read handwriting deprives society of direct access to its own past. We will become reliant on a small group of trained translators and experts to report what history—including the documents and papers of our own families—was about. The spread of literacy in the early modern West was driven by people’s desire to read God’s word for themselves, to be empowered by an experience of unmediated connection. The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We are losing a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.

On the last day of class, a student came up to me with a copy of one of my books and asked me to sign it. I wrote an inscription that included not just his name and mine, but thanks for his many contributions to the seminar. Then I asked, a little wistfully, if he’d like me to read it to him.

This article appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “Cursive Is History.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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