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Teach Content, Not Cursive

Owing to youthful bad luck, I am living proof that a person can achieve at least a modicum of success in life despite having no facility at cursive handwriting.

When I was in the first grade I broke my right arm in a fall.  One year later to the day, I did the same thing again.  During the many weeks that my arm was encased in an itchy plaster cast, I struggled to make numbers and letters with my left hand.   Afterward, my atrophied forearm, rigid wrist and stiffened fingers left me unable to copy competently the lovely letters and numbers printed on my handwriting exercise papers with my right hand.  My teachers checked the box for “Needs Improvement” and sent me home with notes asking my parents, both of whom wrote beautiful script, to have me practice my “penmanship.”  I declined, preferring instead to create and rely on the personalized amalgam of block and curved letters that I have used ever since.

The North Carolina General Assembly currently is considering “Back to Basics” legislation that would require our public schools to “provide instruction in cursive writing so that students create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of the fifth grade.”   If that had been the law in the 1950s I would never have gotten out of elementary school.

The fact that I, many of my fellow lawyers and almost all of the physicians I have known have been able to acquire advanced degrees and pass professional licensing exams suggests to me that cursive handwriting, like ballroom dancing, is a desirable skill, but not a particularly necessary one.  Moreover, its utility has steadily given way during my lifetime, first to typewriters and Dictaphonesand then to keyboards, all of which produce words faster and usually more clearly than pencils or pens.

What the legislature should be worrying about isn’t how students produce “readable documents,” but whether the documents they produce reflect critical thinking, analytical skills, rhetorical clarity and grammatical competence.   Rather than spending valuable time on handwriting, we should go “Back to Basics” by requiring elementary students to become familiar with gerunds, participles, adverbs and prepositional phrases.   Perhaps they could even be taught proper punctuation or the correct usages of “lie” and “lay.”

Freedom of expression is meaningless unless we have something cogent to say and the ability to say it in ways that others can understand, and neither of those attributes has anything to do with our handwriting skill, or lack of it.

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