An unlikely controversy has erupted in education regarding, of all things, cursive writing.
The debate over cursive is reaching full throttle courtesy of the new Common Core State Standards and its top-to-bottom overhaul of K-12 curriculum, which is now beginning to be rolled out in our local schools.
Cursive writing, while not expressly prohibited or discouraged, isn’t included in the new standards. For now, California has opted to continue requiring cursive instruction, but many observers believe it’s just a matter of time before that mandate becomes history. That might not kill it outright, but cursive could end up like the character from the movie “Princess Bride” who was declared to be “mostly dead.”
This has fostered some sharp reaction by two opposing camps. On one side are traditionalists who argue that cursive writing is an important cultural and academic discipline that teaches students focus and fine motor skills, benefits that carry over to all major subject areas, from math to English composition.
Handwriting specialist Kathryn Majewicz, owner of Orange County Handwriting, argues that cursive builds important neural connections, and is more efficient than printing because there are fewer stops and starts. She likens it to driving on a freeway vs. surface streets, a difference she finds especially helpful to students with reading and writing disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.
A few justifications for teaching cursive are less persuasive. I have to laugh in sympathy at the regular postings in online chat rooms by anxious students wondering whether writing in cursive will really help them score higher on the essay portion of the SAT.
This worry stems from a College Board study that reportedly found that among a group of test takers it evaluated, the small portion who wrote their essays in cursive received slightly higher scores. Some observers see that as solid evidence that cursive is a superior style of writing, and that those who use it exhibit better concentration.
But if the finding means anything at all, which I’m not sure it does, it’s just as easy to believe that it reflects a bias on the part of scorers, or that the cursive writers in the study just happened to be marginally better test takers.
In the other corner of the debate are those who believe that cursive writing is a dying art anyway, that the benefits it imparts can be had through other means, and that most people already favor printing over script. Our schools must achieve greater depth, rigor and relevance, they argue, and, sadly, that means that some traditions must be sacrificed so that students can thrive in our increasingly analytical, computer-based world.
I suspect that the surprisingly strong reactions to an arguably minor aspect of education are rooted in our mixed feelings over the role of technology in our lives.
To many people, cursive writing represents something bigger than the ability to join letters: It is a touchstone for fundamental skills and values that shouldn’t be lost in our rush to embrace the newest, shiniest toys. Its threatened extinction is seen as a sorry side effect of our increasingly digitized society, in which the joy of a handwritten letter is losing out to the inelegant, semi-literate postings of a generation raised on electronic media.
Students “are missing a portion of our country’s history if they are unable to read the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence,” Majewicz said. “Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country.”
For the time being, what we’re likely to see is a middle-ground response. Cursive will continue to be de-emphasized at the state and local level, but it won’t be phased out entirely — not yet, anyway.
The precarious fate of cursive is also emblematic of a larger issue, however: Other subjects and disciplines that provide benefits similar to those of cursive have also lost steady ground in our schools. Arts education, for instance — from basic drawing and composition to music — has suffered from decades of cutbacks, and the ramifications have been deep and widespread.
Also, as a writer, I worry less about penmanship — my chicken scratching has served me well enough over years of copious note-taking — and more about the content, clarity and cohesion of students’ writing. I am sometimes asked to help students with essays and papers, and am routinely dismayed to find that even the brightest, most accomplished students often have trouble constructing a decent sentence.
The intense response spawned by the prospect of cursive’s demise should be directed toward some of these other gaping holes in education. It’s very much an open question how much Common Core will fill some of these deficits.
Education is going through some huge changes right now. The goal of giving students a deeper, richer, more meaningful, as well as more practical, experience is both promising and alluring.
Yet some changes won’t go smoothly, and there will be plenty of objections to putting the focus on certain areas at the expense of some time-honored subjects and methods. In this way, the debate over cursive is illustrative of kind of struggles we now face and will continue to encounter as we try to forge a path for the future.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.