A Cursive Letter from Overseas

shutterstock_9776056When we recently visited The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I stopped to view Thomas Hart Benton’s Letter from Overseas. This small lithograph shows a woman sitting on a fence near her mailbox reading a letter by lantern light. It’s an ominous, dark drawing done in 1943, the middle of World War II.

The drawing struck a chord with me, but so too did the note on the gallery wall next to it. The note quoted letters written by soldiers from battlefields overseas and suggested similar letters may have inspired Benton’s work. I wondered if he would have been so motivated by emails sent from soldiers who had never learned to write cursive and could only type their letters home.

This thought came to me because a few days earlier I had read a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal announcing that several elementary schools across the country have stopped teaching cursive writing. Others are planning to drop this subject in the near future.

As schools in 45 states begin implementing the new common core state standards for math and English, they are, according to the Journal, sending “cursive the way of the quill pen, while requiring instead that students be proficient in keyboarding by fourth grade.”

Clearly, in our technology-driven world, having keyboard skills is essential. Every student must be able to type accurately on a computer and a tablet—and perhaps a smartphone—at a very young age.

But do we now need formal typing classes in school—especially if they replace classes for cursive handwriting? I’d be surprised if most children can’t use a keyboard much earlier than fourth grade—most, by the time they finish preschool—even without training from their teachers.

I know one young girl who at one-and-a-half can already turn on her iPad, key in the password, and then find and play her games. She can’t type words, but then she isn’t yet able to read and can’t quite speak in sentences. My guess is she will be emailing before she is three.

So, it doesn’t make sense to me that teachers have to choose (or should even be given a choice) between teaching their students to use a keyboard and teaching them cursive writing. Kids will learn keyboarding on their own, but they’ll never learn handwriting if they are not taught in school.

None of us is blind to the fact that little demand for cursive writing exists today in business or social settings. But it’s still used in a lot of ways important to each of us.

For example, just as our DNA and fingerprints make each of us unique, our individual signatures also define who we are. That’s why teenagers still practice signing their signatures until they represent them in just the right way.

Without cursive, they lose one important aspect of what it means to be an individual.

If schools stop teaching cursive handwriting, other important things might be lost as well:

  • A daughter might never be able to put away with other treasures the letter of love and respect written on her wedding day in her father’s distinctive handwriting.
  • Without his distinctive signature, one of today’s young students might never know the thrill of signing with a flourish the contract for his first apartment after graduate school.
  • When one of today’s preschoolers becomes the most important writer of the 21st century, the world will always miss the cursive handwritten corrections on her manuscripts.
  • The mother of a future soldier might never receive from an overseas battlefield a letter written in her son’s unmistakable cursive handwriting.

Graphic: Shutterstock

4 responses

  1. Great article, David! Yes, I don’t think the digital technology can ever replace the tactile and aesthetic dimensions of a hand-written letter in cursive. I don’t think my father’s letters from overseas in World War II would carry quite the same weight for me as e-mails.

  2. Don’t forget that when the power grid is hacked and ultimately destroyed we will need to communicate with pen and paper.
    Oh yeah, we’ll also need to be able to count

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