On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:


Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.


That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.


How to live with elephants, in the modern wired world

Coexistence is a journey… not a destination”

That useful reminder comes from the main human protagonist of this beautifully told story (see video below) of how elephants and people can coexist, even in places with a relatively high density of people sharing habitat with a small but resilient population of elephants.

Over the course of but a century and a half, less than two elephant lifetimes, a rainforest-clad mountain in southern India known as Anamalai, the Elephant Hills (in Tamil), has become a mosaic of tea plantations, coffee estates, and the settlements of people laboring in those “working landscapes”. The original rainforest habitat of thousands of native species now clings to the interstices of this mosaic, with a few big patches under protection, but many smaller ones facing the vagaries of “mixed use” by humans and non-humans alike.

In most places on Earth, I daresay, this would seem like an unlikely place for a population of elephants to persist. Especially when you consider how their kin in Africa have been slaughtered in recent years even in far less populated places, to slake distant markets for ivory. Yet, here in southern India, a different dynamic is at play, for the local people worship the elephants even as they work their habitats to satisfy other human needs. The elephants too have discovered that there is often more food to be found in the human plantations than in the diminished forests.

Conflict is inevitable when two dominant species compete to appropriate the primary productivity of any landscape. When one of the species is Homo sapiens, the inevitable outcome is seldom a good one for the other species. Yet a cultural reverence for the elephants has combined with the relatively low price placed on ordinary human lives in this part of the world to allow for a tenuous coexistence of sorts. With 39 human lives lost in the past two decades, the elephant god has extracted a bigger sacrifice than might be tolerated in places like the United States.

Now Ananda Kumar and colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation (an organization with which I am proud to be associated since its inception, through bonds of friendship and collaboration) tell the story of this coexistence between humans and elephants, and how they have worked to find ways to reduce that human toll and keep both elephants and humans out of harm’s (i.e., each others’) way. And this step forward in the journey of coexistence has been made possible by harnessing some of the very technology that so many of us nature-lovers love to deride as alienating us from nature: cable television and mobile phones!

Watch the story (filmed by my friend Saravanakumar) of how Ananda Kumar and colleagues found ingenious ways to use modern communication technologies to facilitate an ancient coexistence between two species who have long shared habitat in southern India:

Living in harmony with nature – that phrase evokes romantic notions of indigenous people living off the land in lives we imagine to be wonderful and harmonious and wise, but may in reality have been closer to “nasty, brutish, and short”. Nature lovers and conservations love to hate modern technology and blame it for many of our social-ecological ills. This project, and its success in saving human and elephant lives, shows us that we can, in fact, reconcile human development through technology, with the conservation of nature in the constant journey towards coexistence. It is a journey that requires sacrifice, and coexistence may have to be paid for in blood, but technology can soften the blow, even for the most vulnerable among us.


Science needs voices. All of them. Thank you @ehmee.

I can’t tell you how glad I am, as a father of daughters growing up in today’s world, that we have Emily Graslie’s voice, inspiring them every day in ways that I cannot, building their confidence so they too can add their voices to the conversation, as the discoverers and adventurers and explorers they are, without worrying about what anyone thinks of them.

Thank you, Emily, for this in particular today:

For more inspiration from this remarkable voice, this Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum of Natural History, find her on tumblr, twitter, and of course the brainscoop channel.


The Conscience of an Asteroid

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my original, extended version of the essay, before it was pared down for broadcast. You can imagine me reading it in your head, or listen to the broadcast version recorded in my voice.

Artist's impression of asteroid slamming into tropical seas near Yucatan.

Painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. More info: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/files/images/captions/p45062.txt

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Nearly 70% of all species alive on that day disappeared forever.

This was the last known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. It was the fifth time that such a mass extinction has occurred on our planet. As far as we know.

The history of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient and incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with the story of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here since long before us.

The tools of paleontology help us decipher these stories written in stone. We can read of the long age of bacteria and other single-celled organisms; of the time when the air held no oxygen because no one had figured out how to make food from sunlight; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species who couldn’t breathe the air that sustains us now.

A later chapter tells of the age of carbon, when dense forests covered the land, before getting buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil. Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again, dangerously.

The first stirrings of plants and animals on to land make for thrilling reading. We particularly love the tale of the plucky fish caught in tidal pools which began breathing the air and crawling around on land! How they eventually gave rise to the land mammals we call our own kin.

We discover pieces of our own story everyday, from humble origins as apes that stood up in Africa and spread out of that continent probably to escape a changing climate, and eventually occupied the entire planet.

Five times during the past billion years, this riveting story is interrupted by unspeakable horrors as some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start to evolve on a mostly empty planet.

The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one yet, driving more than 90% of species extinct, including many among the otherwise hardy insects. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals. We don’t quite know what caused the Permian mass extinction, but massive, perhaps sudden climate change may have a played a big role.

The asteroid that took out the big dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was a mere lump of rock drifting in orbit around the sun until it fell to Earth and wiped life’s slate almost clean for the fifth time. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Nor any notion that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs to become another force of mass extinction.

Now we find ourselves on yet another brink, where our own industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. Within the past century, we have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level last seen only in the wake of that asteroid. We have come so far, in building our diverse cultures and technologies, achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, which will doom us just as surely.

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that allows us to understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid?



What do we do with the aliens among us?

Over at the excellent The Nature of Cities blog, editor David Maddox is hosting the site’s 8th Global Roundtable, this time focusing on the challenge of invasive and exotic species in cities. David recently invited me (as one of the regular contributors to the blog) to take part in this roundtable with a brief essay stating my perspective. My essay was posted to the roundtable earlier this week, along with about a dozen other perspectives from urban ecology practitioners around the world. Please visit the forum site to read all the different views, and share your own by commenting in the discussion – I really hope you will do so. All of the authors are reading comments and participating in the discussion actively over the next few weeks. So I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, as promised, here is a somewhat expanded (or more rambling) version of my essay:


Aliens! Invasives! Species that don’t belong here and are taking over the ecological roles of native species. Those weeds choking the understory of native forests. The Starlings and House Sparrows pulled out of Shakespeare’s England that now so tragically dispossess native birds of their nest holes!

How can we tolerate these aliens among us? How fast can we get rid of them? Exterminate the aliens!

Pretty exotic flowers that make our suburban gardens so lovely. Grasses from halfway around the world that knit the dense mats of our lush lawns. Lovely succulent plants and delicately spined cactuses that dot our newly water-wise xeric landscapes and window ledges. Plants that flower and fruit out of their time and place, maybe year round.

Where can we get more of them so our gardens in Arizona look just like the ones in England or Singapore or Australia? So the corporate landscapes in Bangalore make the techs returning home from Silicon Valley feel like they never left California? Like the peacocks whose plaintive calls and stunning displays might make California feel more like Gujarat!

A Peacock in California

We humans sure do have a passionately ambivalent relationship with nature. Never more so than when it comes to the plants and animals we move around among our global habitats. The very words we use to describe them are so heavily laden with value judgment: invasive, alien, exotic. We move them around with us so we can evoke the landscapes of our childhoods halfway around the world, or recreate imagined ones from somewhere else entirely. We wage war on them when they refuse to stay in the gardens and pens where we put them, and start exploring new worlds on their own.

Humans are the most invasive species on Earth. Our cities, ecosystems we build and replicate around the world, are also focal points from which other species have invaded native habitats. Just as wanderlust defines our species, so does the biophilia which makes us take living elements of our habitats with us wherever we go. Carrying a suite of species as sources of food, comfort, companionship, and beauty, has always been part of our cultural and evolutionary baggage. Invasiveness is something evolution tends to reward, and our own evolutionary success springs from a certain restless invasiveness.

Ever since our ancestors realized they could control the lives of other plants and animals, so they could rely on them to feed the body and nurture the mind during lean times, humans have been moving species around the world. In scattering across the planet, we deliberately carried many such species to help fill our bellies, beautify our homes, and stave off homesickness in strange new lands. Meanwhile, other species latched on to our coattails, hitching rides around the world with this walking ape, this most efficient global form of transport and dispersal they had ever encountered! Wittingly and unwittingly, we set off evolutionary changes in species we want, species we tolerate, and species we hate, as they all became part of a human-ecosystem-complex we have set about replicating across the world. These places we call cities often serve as outposts from which many other species launch their invasions into surrounding native habitats. And so we end up with the dilemma of wanting to move some species with us to our new homes, but struggling to keep some of them from spreading out of our gardens and farms and taking over entire native ecosystems.

It is in the very nature of life to try to take control of its immediate environment, to transform resources to nurture itself, and to expand outwards to occupy and transform new places. Invasiveness, the ability to “invade” new habitats, is always favored by evolution. Natural selection rewards traits that allow species to grow rapidly, to outcompete other species vying for the same resources, or simply eat them as food. Moving to a completely new habitat, while quite risky, can also bring the benefits of escaping the co-evolved competitors and predators and parasites that might hold a species back in their native range.

So most species are always sending out their seeds and young ones into new habitats by whatever means available. Most often, these dispersals end in tragedy, but every once in a while, they open up vast unimagined new territory for the species, and new evolutionary opportunities to express and expand the range of their genetic potential. Humans, increasingly, provide some of the most perilous, exciting, and potentially high-risk/high-reward challenges to other species: if you can attach yourself to a human, and figure out how to survive in the strange new urban world, you stand a good chance of surviving in this Anthropocene, sometimes in places far from your evolutionary home.

We have spent millennia figuring out how to make some species grow where and when we want them. Meanwhile, other species have latched on to our coattails making the most of this new mode of hyper-efficient long-range dispersal: the hairless ape that travels the world, with baggage. Only recently have we realized the often devastating consequences of bringing exotic species into native habitats. Invasive species fuel some of the most intense debates among conservationists, often laden with hysterical rhetoric about alien, exotic, invaders who must be exterminated.

Invasiveness is in the nature of the most successful species. To know the truth of this, one need but look in the mirror. We are, after all, the most successful invasive species now occupying the planet! But our success has been the downfall of many other species, and we are only just now grappling with the consequences of our invasiveness. Yet the most passionate debates about what to do with invasive species, heavy with the metaphor of war and genocide and extermination, tends to somehow tiptoe around this elephant in the room: the fact that we humans are the ultimate invasive species on Earth, and are responsible for most other invasions that are destabilizing native ecosystems worldwide. Indeed, displaced species often form a big part of our own preferred global habitats.

Cities are where most humans now live, where we often first introduce new species, and whence some of these species launch invasions into new habitats. Indeed, cities themselves seem like invasive habitats proliferating in and destabilizing ecosystems around the world. Cities must therefore be central to our efforts to address the challenge of invasive species. Cities embody the contradiction between our desire to control nature, shaping entire ecosystems to suit our purposes, and our growing desire to conserve nature and biodiversity.

Urban gardens

How do we reconcile our innate desire to build habitats for our own biological and cultural needs with a growing awareness that perhaps we should leave nature alone? It must start with owning our central role in this ecological conundrum. It is time we accepted our responsibility, as the ultimate invasive species that has moved entire ecosystems around and built new ones. It requires us to transform our role beyond the dichotomy of active perpetrator / passive bystander in the drama of invasive species. We must embrace the role of more deliberate stewards of the lands we now dominate.

As more people recognize the problems of invasive species, many now seek ways to build native species friendly urban landscapes. Ecologists are good at understanding the effects of non-native species in native habitats, and in raising the alarm about invasive species. We haven’t done enough to actually transform the practices that contribute to the invasive species problem. Urban ecologists have been lax in engaging with one group who arguably wield the greatest influence on this challenge: gardeners, nurseries, and landscapers. The growing desire to make urban gardens native-friendly is constrained by lack of available species options in local nurseries, and of expertise in nurturing native species. Ecologists must fill this knowledge gap by developing better ways to support native species in urban habitats in partnership with the people who actively transform the landscape.

Forget “leave nature alone”; in cities we must become better ecosystem engineers, designing habitats more consciously to enhance native biodiversity while limiting opportunities for non-native species. We must also recognize that some non-native species have become naturalized to play important roles in their adoptive ecosystems, so simply eradicating them is not the ideal solution. People move and grow plants and animals to fulfill complex social, cultural, aesthetic, and emotional needs. We must develop a broader vision of biodiversity that includes both the ecological roles of species and their cultural resonance for people. Balancing these will be key to managing invasive species in and around urban landscapes.

Humans will continue to move species around, despite conservationists’ (and agriculturalists’) best efforts to limit the movement of exotic species into regions outside their native range. Some of these species can and do become invasive in their new habitats. As good gardeners in the city, we will therefore also have to keep a close eye on all the species in urban ecosystems to make sure they don’t escape and start threatening native habitats nearby. At the same time, it is also worth remembering the plight of the House Sparrow, that ultimate city slicker introduced around the world as part and parcel of the global urban template. Alarmingly, it has recently disappeared quite mysteriously from many of its native cities in Europe and Asia. If the species were to somehow go extinct in its native range, at least its emigre populations, like the House Sparrow diaspora in the Americas, may remain the only living populations of a threatened species! We therefore have to be careful even in our efforts to eradicate non-native species lest we destabilize ecosystems, or drive species to extinction in unexpected ways.

Leaving nature alone is not really a viable option in the social-ecological systems we call cities. Instead, our respect for nature, and our growing enthusiasm for enhancing native species diversity, must be tempered by Constant Vigilance (if I may borrow the wise Mad-Eye Moody’s words) when it comes to the interlopers from elsewhere.


Do exotic, invasive, aliens keep you up at night? Are they in your neighborhood?

Most of us live in cities now, which must seem like rather exotic, alien habitats to other denizens of our planet, full of strange creatures they’ve never encountered before. By which I mean not just us hairless apes, but many other species too, from distant corners of the Earth. For we also tend to fill our cities with plants and animals we like, even though they don’t come from the immediate neighborhood of the city.

Does this worry you, this proliferation of exotic species in urban landscapes? It should, especially when they become invasive. So what can we do about them? Over at The Nature of Cities (a wonderful blog to which I contribute from time to time) editor David Maddox is hosting a roundtable discussion on the topic of exotics in the city. I’m one of a dozen or so contributors to this particular roundtable, the 8th of a monthly series on the blog. We were all asked to submit short pieces (600 words) to address this month’s topic:

How much should we worry about exotic species in urban zones? How do we reduce damage from exotic invasives when management resources are limited?  Are there conflicts between management or eradication efforts and building general support for urban biodiversity?

So head on over there to read our brief essays, and then join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments. All of the authors will be participating actively in the roundtable discussion over the next few weeks, addressing each other’s posts and responding to readers’ comments. So I hope to see you there!

In drafting my own essay response, my thoughts on invasive species wandered farther afield (there’s invasiveness for you!) than David’s questions, and I had to rein them in to stick to the roundtable’s format and word limit. So now I’ve got this whole other rambling post on invasive species, which I might as well share here. So watch out for that to land here too, shortly…


On the curse of cursive handwriting in homework

Is it really such a terrible curse if people stop writing in cursive? Or is this just one more attempt to hold on to a declining element of a rapidly chaining culture, mere nostalgia for a fading way of life?

I’m inclined to think it is the latter, and am generally impatient with nostalgia, but I know Kaberi completely disagrees with me. Our daughters are split too in the middle of this cursed cursive war (which has been known to raise decibels, yes!) right in our home! The older one writes in cursive beautifully and loves it. It was the bane of the younger one’s existence throughout a painful 3rd grade last year.

Of course she also had a largely undiagnosed stomach pain that had her doubled over in agony on many a school day and night, forcing us to even withdraw her from school on medical grounds for a couple of months this past spring. She was eventually diagnosed with lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption, which only added to her misery as she has to learn to cut out her two most favorite sweet food groups from her diet: fruits and milk products! It is not easy for a 9yo to maintain dietary discipline, especially in a culture steeped in cheese and high-fructose corn syrup! 

Of course cursive didn’t give her her stomach ache – but it sure didn’t help to have 4 pages of cursive writing as part of her homework every week. And that was just a small part of a weekly homework packet that had us all stressing out at home. I’m not a fan of homework to begin with, especially in the younger grades. Having to force one’s child to do pages and pages of rote work she hated was agonizing for me. How could I add to her stress by insisting on cursive and timed arithmetic (the other bane of homework, but I’ll save that rant for another day) when it undoubtedly played a part in her stomach pain? And when she would rather be learning about dinosaurs or singing or learning to play an instrument, or play, or do anything but write cursive?

It didn’t help that her teacher took a more hardline approach to her homework, getting stressed out herself at our child’s inability to complete parts of her homework. It didn’t help when I told her that I didn’t particularly care about grades (this was 3rd grade, after all!) as I was more focused on her health. How could it help to add layers of guilt over incomplete arithmetic homework or poor motivation to learn cursive, of all things, when anyone could see the child was in agony (and not faking it as was initially implied by her teacher and others in her school – until we got a doctor’s letter indicating otherwise). It also didn’t help Kaberi who herself has been stressed out caught between the stern teacher and our daughter’s pain – especially because she herself believes in the power of cursive! And it definitely does not help that the child in question has a stubborn streak of defiance that matches the fire in her mother’s belly – and I’m called in to act as a buffer and have to coax her to do as much of that blessed homework as possible.

Kaberi writes in cursive quite well and believes it is a crucial part of education. I wouldn’t be surprised if she agrees wholeheartedly with the argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education article which set off this blog post. She learned to write in cursive in school, even though English was a foreign language to her, with the mother tongue Bangla being the main medium of instruction all the way into college. So maybe learning cursive was part of the package of learning a foreign language for her, and maybe she was naturally inclined to master the dexterity of pen everyone insists is such a massive benefit of cursive writing.

I, on the other hand, never learned to write cursive, even though I went to an English-medium school and have ended up with this foreign tongue as my main language practically since kindergarten. Somehow, I don’t remember cursive writing being such a big part of the curriculum there – although I may be mis-remembering. Perhaps I was allowed to get away with not learning cursive because I was such a high-scoring student in everything else. I can read cursive fine, and never felt that my inability to write in cursive has held me back in any way (but maybe that’s why I’m here and not in some more prestigious university?). I’m ready to go to bat for the younger child given how much the cursive homework adds to her already physically painful level of stress. Kaberi is convinced of the developmental benefits of cursive.

Back to the CHE article, I am baffled by the author picking on one student who doesn’t “do cursive” as an example of the failings of an entire generation and an indictment of a shift in the larger education system. I have not read much of the rationale used to drop cursive from the new Common Core, but am curious now to find out if it was driven by someone’s technocratic bias in favor of computer keyboard skills, or is grounded in some other cognitive/educational arguments. In any case, lamenting the decline of cursive because it makes it harder for some students to read historical documents does not strike me as a wrong argument for making cursive mandatory for all students. Historical research requires a variety of specialized skills which students of history must master – but not everybody is setting out to become a historian. After all people made similar arguments in favor of teaching Latin and Sanskrit, but society has not collapsed since we stopped making those mandatory in schools. Students of history continue to learn ancient foreign languages to decipher old manuscripts and letters, and will continue to do so with or without cursive writing being a mandatory part of the grade school curriculum, I dare say. 

I also have to call bullshit on the alleged neurological benefits of cursive inferred in this article. I don’t doubt that cursive writing strengthens certain neural circuits in the brain, possibly involving both fine motor skills and cognition. Any repetitive task is bound to induce some hard-wiring in the brain, some of which is no doubt useful for survival in a given civilization. But sweeping statements like this raise all kinds of red flags for me:

Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization.

Really? Sorry, but if you claim that something is crucial to such a wide range of things, I’d like to see a bit more evidence than this bold inference:

Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.

Writing was invented as a means of communication, and has been key to our success, no doubt, and no doubt learning to do it well has cognitive and social benefits. But don’t tell me that entire disciplines will disappear or civilization will collapse because some people cannot write in cursive. As for academic success, tell me: which profession has the reputation for the worst handwriting? And towards which profession do we encourage our most academically successful students? And in which profession could legible handwriting be considered literally a matter of life or death? The answer to all three: medicine! Doctors are allowed to have the worst handwriting on their prescriptions, ostensibly because having to learn so much doesn’t leave them time to hone their writing skills as well. So tell me again how lack of facility with cursive has held back the medical profession in this declining civilization?

I think our brains are far more flexible than many of us recognize, and it can develop and maintain wiring appropriate to a variety of tasks that are relevant to one’s life. Studies touting the cognitive benefits of handwriting being superior to keyboard use will, I suspect, be replaced by future studies that find similar benefits to other, perhaps not yet invented ways of inputting text. As I’m sure nostalgists of previous generations would have claimed similar scientific support for teaching their favorite neuromotor skills had neurologists been available to conduct similar studies in the past.

Isn’t there also often a not-so-faint whiff of cultural and linguistic elitism in this argument for cursive? At a time when more first-generation and low-income students than ever are being encouraged to get into higher education, is cursive writing the skill we want to emphasize so much? Isn’t cursive elitism just a bit reminiscent of the elitism of other cultural skills to which are ascribed all kinds of unfounded cognitive and neurological benefits, like classical music and that Baby Mozart effect? Besides, as a friend just pointed out on Facebook, cursive writing (especially as lamented by the author of the CHE article) is rather tied to English and related languages sharing this alphabet, is it not? Of course, other languages too have their own traditions of elegant handwriting and calligraphy – but they are often treated as special skills for the artistically inclined; not required skills without which someone’s entire cognitive and social development would be stalled! 

All that said, I say more power to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Illinois for starting a “Camp Cursive”, and may they help preserve this precious skill. And good on them for encouraging children to come up with creative Shakespearean curses to write in cursive! But pardon me if I do a quiet dance if the cursive requirement disappears from my daughter’s homework in the coming year under the new Common Core curriculum. Then again, maybe I am the one who is already cognitively impaired from never having learned cursive and therefore fail to see something apparently obvious to others on this issue.