The writing on the wall is cursive
There are states in the US that are abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting.
Never mind that learning cursive writing in Grade 3 is a rite of passage, something that turns us from “little kids” into those who can decipher scrawled notes in adult hand.
Never mind that in order to learn to make your pen glide smoothly over the page, you have to develop fine motor skills that print writing does not develop – the very motor skills that are needed by surgeons, scientists and computer technicians.
Never mind that cursive writing develops spatial skills which cannot be replicated by those you learn in computer games.
Never mind that hand, pen and paper work in an alchemy which has proven to increase your ability to recall information.
Cursive handwriting was invented so that we can write faster. We need to write fast because of the speed at which thoughts form. Poor handwriting slows you down and you can’t keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence and remember it long enough to write it down.
But never mind that children are being denied the complexity of thought that cannot be simulated by the mechanical tapping of fingers on keys.
Never mind the loss of the aesthetics of beautiful handwriting.
Future generations will lose the ability to write in cursive, cursive will become arcane, the territory of specialist ability, but it is none of those other things about the loss of cursive that I mourn. It is the loss of individuality.
Mairin Blaauw from St Cyprians, in her contribution to English Alive this year, writes in her story called October Sky: “Here we sit, ordered into groups, boxed into classrooms and labelled according to our ‘ability’. Here we sit in identical rows, on identical chairs, behind identical desks. We sit so that the establishment can rise. We, the soldiers of conformity; mindless adherents of a system we do not understand, a system whose propagating flag we sell our souls to raise. And when that system steals from us our personality, we nod our faceless heads and blindly accept our nameless identity; we, the soldiers of conformity.”
What, I beg of you, is more conformist than type? Than Calibri, Verdana and Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica. Indeed, they make our lives easier, make teachers’ lives easier, that’s for sure. But they can never replace the exclusive, exceptional beauty of the unique individuality of ink that loops across a page written in the style of a single incomparable human being.
Apart from your fingerprint, or your DNA – both of which must attest to your individuality as a human quietly and behind the scenes – your handwriting is the only real mark you can leave on your every day that proves to you that you are not like the rest.
In these states in the US where they are abandoning the teaching of cursive, they are doing so in order to concentrate on keyboarding.
I spent five years in total at university and in all that time the skill I am most aware of daily, the one that makes my practical life so much easier, is the ability to touch type. I am all for the skill of keyboarding. It’s essential. In fact, when I see people bent over the keyboards with their eyes on their fingers which are pecking away laboriously only as fast as their eyes can locate individual letters and numbers, the inefficiency of their work method pains me. Keyboarding is an essential skill.
But to learn it instead of cursive writing? Isn’t that retrogression? Isn’t the point of life going forwards, learning more, being cleverer than our parents and twice as clever as our great-great grandparents? Isn’t that evolution? Is it not then counter-intuitive to decide to learn less? To trade one necessary skill – and I have already made the point that cursive is necessary – for another?
Society needs its intellectuals, thinkers, planners, designers as much as it needs its road builders and plumbers, its merchandisers and receptionists, its managers, accountants and dentists.
The hallmarks of intellectualism and creativity are a refusal to accept mainstream thought. While you may feel like school or society is turning you into an automaton, a soldier of conformity, you, here, you writers, carry the secrets of rebellion inside you.
What does cursive writing have to do with that? It has to do with an assertion of your very simple “own-ness”.
On top of which, if you want to be a writer, your hand, a good pen, and that Egyptian gift that keeps on giving – paper – are going to be your anchors, your roots, your steering wheels, your gears and your GPS whenever you paint yourself into intellectual corners, reach what feels like the end of your creative and emotional tether, or want to scream in frustration and rage at the world without anyone hearing. Writing is a life mapped, a font – and I use the word in both senses of its meaning – of thought.
The world wants good communicators, clear thinkers, idea makers. Nothing puts you in a better position to be all of those things – across any career you can possibly think of – than the ability to express yourself clearly in writing. Being a good writer does not mean that your career is limited to writing. Good writing is an indication that there is a sharp, enquiring mind behind the printed words. That even though the writers do not have the answers, they know the questions to ask.
That they are able to work out problems using words. Not just the not insignificant problems of plotting, style, rhythm, word choice, but how to imagine the lives of other people, as Francis de Satgé does in his story The Interhambwe of Mbekweni.
Or to imagine the lives of other beings, as Gregory Booysen does in Dogs of War, or to see to the interconnectedness between different beings, as Luke Boraine does in The Beggar and The Dove.
The ability to see through the small dramas of daily life, as Gladys Kisela does in her story Mrs Van Tonder in her Pink Pantoffels, to what the emotional drivers are that set events in motion and then retell them in such precise, evocative fiction as she has done. To be able to express the universal longing that Tarryn Beattie does in her poem Remember Me, or the bond us human animals form with the natural world, described by Ruth Brain in The Tree.
Or to bravely question the very nature of god as Trudie Spangenberg does in A poem I am not allowed to write.
Writers have the gift of being able to spread the threads of humanity between us, to think about the problems that face our society and write new blueprints.
Separate letters on a page might form a picture, even meaning, but cursive joins the letters in new and interesting and beautiful ways. Humans are linked in a sort of cursive of universality by the ability to communicate authentically, clearly and empathically.
Writers are not soldiers of conformity. We should resist pressure to make life easier by reading abridged versions, or summaries, or by learning to type instead of writing cursive.
l Schimke is a freelance writer, poet and columnist and the editor of the Cape Times books pages. This is an extract from a speech delivered at the launch of English Alive, the literary magazine for school students.