Thoughts on Penmanship
I was reading the New Yorker's website today and came across an interesting story about the teaching of cursive in schools. As anyone knows who has paid any attention to or interest in the subject, or has children in school, it will come as little surprise to know that fewer school systems are teaching cursive writing skills. Much of this has to do with the way that "written" communication is now conducted, via the intermediary of email and texting, instead of ink on paper.
The author of the New Yorker piece was describing his personal experience with his child at summer camp, how he was the only parent who sent postal letters, written longhand, instead of email, to his child.
For many of us who grew up with longhand, ceding those hard-earned skills to technological innovation seems instinctive, yet is a futile battle not worth fighting. Certainly we can do our own part in finding ways to keep those cursive skills in personal use. But resisting the tide of change that has swept over education seems out of our reach, a bridge too far. Who are we to fight the Board of Education?
The part of the New Yorker article I found most striking was the author recounting how, after sending numerous letters to his kid's summer camp, he suddenly wondered if she had been able to read them at all. It turns out that she had to enlist the aid of her camp counsellor in order to get through them. This is the part of the story that is most sobering, the idea that cursive can seem an entirely foreign language to those not adept at its interpretation.
Like most kids raised in the 1960s, I was taught the classic Palmer method of cursive in grade school, sticking with it until, in high school, my habit of rapid note-taking reduced my cursive skills to a haphazard printed scrawl, which it remains to this day. Any attempt to produce textbook-quality cursive for me now is akin to performing calligraphy, a purposeful, slow process of consciously forming each letter; not the flowing ease of writing the technique originally intended.
Perhaps this is one reason why I enjoy the use of manual typewriters so much, the ability to produce legible printing at a rapid pace while enjoying the mechanical interaction. Then there is the observation that, although I enjoy owning and using fountain pens with my coarse scrawl, they are best employed with a cursive hand, to facilitate the continuous flow of ink such a pen demands.
I have some close friends whose kids, now grown, were home schooled, and taught an elegant, printed hand instead of cursive. Their letters are wonderfully legible, even more so than cursive which, though somewhat readable retains some of the more complex flourishes of earlier techniques. So while I can lament the demise of cursive, it's not so much about that particular style of handwriting as it is about handwriting in general being displaced by keyboarding.
I've noticed this phenomenon about pens, especially ballpoints, how they seem to be treated by many people as equivalent to toilet paper, in the sense of not seeming to possess much intrinsic worth or value. These days, if you permit someone, even an intimate family member, to "borrow" a pen, you know with almost absolute certainty that you will never see that writing instrument again, regardless of its actual value. I suspect this has something to do with the value that our culture places upon handwriting as a form of communication, which can seem to many as redundant.
Of course, to us office supply geeks, pens, any pen - even the lowly Bic Cristal - are objects of reverence and honor.
It is perhaps ironic that I was, just this morning, scribbling in my composition book with a fountain pen, in my almost illegible scrawl that is far from the ideal of the Palmer method, prior to happening upon that New Yorker article. And it is with even more irony that this article is being keyboarded instead of handwritten; though I've done few if any pen-casts in my blog over the years, mainly because I respect my readers too much to demand that they attempt to decipher my chicken scratchings.
It is for these reasons that I see my handwriting as best suited for note-taking, brain-storming or first-draft, early-stage writing, an entirely personal activity, intended for private consumption only.
One of the things I find so satisfying about handwriting, whether cursive or otherwise, is that it employs one of those primary physiological attributes that defines us as human, that being the dexterity of our hands. Little wonder that writing is one of the "humanities," and penmanship such an essential historical antecedent to today's writing technology.