Monthly Archives: June 2014

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.