19 September 2022

Can you read this message?


If so, you're doing better than many college students, according to Drew Gilpin Faust, retired president of Harvard University:
It was a good book, the student told the 14 others in the undergraduate seminar I was teaching, and it included a number of excellent illustrations, such as photographs of relevant Civil War manuscripts. But, he continued, those weren’t very helpful to him, because of course he couldn’t read cursive.

Had I heard him correctly? Who else can’t read cursive? I asked the class. The answer: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Even more. What did they do about signatures? They had invented them by combining vestiges of whatever cursive instruction they may have had with creative squiggles and flourishes. Amused by my astonishment, the students offered reflections about the place—or absence—of handwriting in their lives. Instead of the Civil War past, we found ourselves exploring a different set of historical changes. In my ignorance, I became their pupil as well as a kind of historical artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a transformed world.

In 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in “keyboarding” assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world...

Yet the decline in cursive seems inevitable. Writing is, after all, a technology, and most technologies are sooner or later surpassed and replaced...

Given a current generation of students in which so few can read or write cursive, one cannot assume it will ever again serve as an effective form of communication. I asked my students about the implications of what they had told me, focusing first on their experience as students. No, most of these history students admitted, they could not read manuscripts. If they were assigned a research paper, they sought subjects that relied only on published sources. One student reshaped his senior honors thesis for this purpose; another reported that she did not pursue her interest in Virginia Woolf for an assignment that would have involved reading Woolf’s handwritten letters. In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today

The thought-provoking essay continues at The Atlantic.  The embedded handwriting sample comes from an article about National Handwriting Day (January 23, the birthday of John Hancock).

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31 comments:

  1. I can read cursive, but I hardly ever use it any more, and my signature only bears a remote resemblance to my actual name. But it could be worse. It could be Russian cursive.

    https://www.boredpanda.com/russian-cursive

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    1. Thank you, Charles, for reminding me that I've written about cursive before. Links added to the post.

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  2. "In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today."

    I'd go one further: in the future, teaching cursive will be considered basic paleography.

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  3. This lack of being able to read and write in 'joined up words' is only a problem in the USA ?
    Multi generations of my family and friends, in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, read and write using it, except when using a phone or computer.
    It was only a few years ago and from an American poster on the internet that I first heard the term 'cursive'. Before that we just called it 'writing.
    The effort of lifting the pen off the paper, for EVERY word, is limited most often to large signs saying garage sale or the like.

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    1. It's about age, not nationality. Most Americans over the age of 35 or so are able to write in script (also know as cursive or longhand in some parts of America). My eight year old wanted to learn, so I taught her how to make the letters in under an hour. Her script is not as precise as her grandmother's, but certainly legible, and she's able to read it with fluidity.

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  4. I can read the message, but that's some pretty darn unclear cursive writing, if I may be so bold.
    (Background: I'm 44 and from the Netherlands, learned cursive (the Dutch variety) at school, consciously changed it to a more "print like" handwriting when I was about 13, but by now it has evolved into what's basically a different kind of cursive.)

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  5. Hi Stan: I have a severe speech impediment and, since so few people know ASL, I rely on writing notes to communicate with people. Lately, I've been tapping people on the shoulder, signing that I cannot speak, and then handing them a note, only to hear them say that they can't read cursive writing. It's not only stunned me, it's making it harder for me to communicate with people. Chris

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  6. I had trouble making out the mother's first name. Looks like Javey but may be Tavey.
    Cursive lifts the pen for every word, printing lifts the pen for every letter.
    After eons writing in cursive (usually called long hand), more advanced countries have moved on to typing on first the typewriter then the keyboard. Cursive would only be useful for notes physically passed or letters mailed. Even the notes are as likely to be printed by hand and letters printed by machine.
    xoxoxoBruce

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    1. Obviously "Janey" to my eye. And I think you're missing (or avoiding) the point that the inability to read cursive will inhibit the abilities of history students and researchers.

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    2. I got the point of the article but answered the question in the headline.
      Plus pointed out rockets mistake. Janey eh? OK.
      xoxoxoBruce

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    3. Janey? I read that as "Carrie Schultz"

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    4. You're looking at the signature. We were discussing the mother's name.

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  7. I can read that just fine. I can supposedly write cursive, but people would question that assumption. Our school district is teaching cursive again.

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  8. Let’s not take the example of Harvard students to be universally representative. You could say they have not learned to ‘read and write’. Some of our top universities in the past required an application to be submitted in Latin. A writing test could be included instead as evidence of a rounded education!

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  9. The demise of cursive ("longhand") was prefigured to some extent by that of stenography ("shorthand"). My mother (b. 1949) had steno classes in public school and can still read and write it, although the opportunities to do so are virtually non-existent now. I imagine, outside of highly specialized professional contexts, she is in the last generation to learn shorthand, like I (b. 1971) am probably in the last generation to take a public school typing class with a manual typewriter!

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    1. I enjoyed reading your comment about learning typing on a manual typewriter. I'll insert here a comment I wrote last year on this subject:

      "I have said publicly (and truly believe) that typing was the single most useful course I took in high school. It was a mandatory eighth-grade course in a boys' school in the 1960s, and was scoffed at by some students as "something for girls." But it sped me through college and graduate school and life in general (including blogging).

      The course was taught by a secretary at the school, so some years ago I wrote to the school to ascertain her name and retirement address, and I wrote her a letter (typed) expressing my appreciation to her for teaching that skill. I'll bet it was the only thank-you she ever received.

      One of my classmates told me he secured a clerkship with a Supreme Court judge based on his ability to type (the judge was short of clerical staff). Another one told me that during the Vietnam War, his ability to type resulted in a stateside clerical position in San Francisco rather than a combat one in the war zone."

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  10. I can read it, but it’s more work and the characters can sometimes be ambiguous depending on how much work went into writing it. I typeset a memoir written by my grandfather and ended up spending a good bit of time researching context around certain things to disambiguate.

    Aside from using more space, I don’t think it will be much of a loss because the original can be typeset and displayed side-by-side. It’s not that difficult to learn for folks doing research either.

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  11. Hi Stan: I have a severe speech impairment. Writing notes to people I need to speak with is an important part of my communication strategy. Lately, I’ve encountered people telling me that they cannot read cursive and it’s very disappointing and inconvenient. I was shocked when it first happened.

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  12. Equally concerning to the history issues, I am a recently retired RN, and was in a facility where the EMR went down, so physicians had to hand write orders. They no longer teach illegible handwriting in med school, though I’m an expert at that, too, have started nursing in the late 80’s. One physician wrote an extremely legible order for an antibiotic, and the bedside RN, who looked about 25 years old handed be the order, said he couldn’t read cursive, and could I transcribe it into print for him. Way to make me feel old, young whippersnapper.

    OTOH, I taught myself to read old German hand script and Fractur in order to read old family documents, so it’s not terribly difficult. Those who wish to study history will do so with modern American cursive as well.

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  13. I write Ukrainian 'cursive'. We were taught that for certain letters, we should add an underline or have a line above them to clarify which letter it was. Or, increase the spacing between those certain letters so they are recognizable. Those 'certain' letters would include: и і л м п т ш - there are probably others, but I do not recall those right now.

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  14. I was born in 1968. My high school had classes in shorthand and typing (typing on both manual and electric typewriters as well as microcomputers (Bank Street Writer on an Apple II). We certainly learned cursive.

    I wasn't planning on being a secretary so I never took shorthand, but typing has been very useful.

    All the hours spent dealing with cursive would have been far more useful to me if we'd learned to write the greek alphabet, which is basically required in college level math classes. (I can do delta.... )

    As for the problems for historians, that's easily solved with computers and OCR.

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  15. As an historian/archival researcher, of necessity, I can read and write cursive. I had to teach myself 18th C Spanish 'cursive' and its abbreviations, mostly by using my minimal knowledge of New Mexican Spanish to guess what the abbreviations could be; they seem to have worked.
    And I must admit that some English historical documents are as difficult to read as some of my own notes.

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  16. I’m a college professor, and so I remember grading essays and labs and such written in cursive. It was horrible! The moment that access to word processing became standard in higher education I required it. Cursive, in my humble opinion, lends itself to artistic flourishes, (unfortunately) lazy time-saving motions, and thus lots of diversity. Over the last decade I’ve phased out my use of cursive in comments to students on their work, since most students can’t read it well, and in fact my handwriting has grown blockier and ironically more readable to both them and me. I’m fine with cursive following olde englisch and stick-shift cars into the historical archives.
    That said, I occasionally receive a hand-written letter in flawless, uniform cursive, and I almost want to frame them. Cursive done “write” can be absolutely gorgeous.

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    1. "...stick-shift cars into the historical archives."
      Wash your mouth out with soap for uttering such heresy! LoL
      Rage, yes rage against the shiftless masses not paying attention.
      xoxoxoBruce

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    2. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/08/stick-shift-manual-transmission-cars/671078/

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  17. This whole discussion befuddles me. I've only been taught cursive way back when in Holland. Print wasn't a thing, other than that we had to practice occasionally to write things on forms in loose capitals only, which I guess is print.

    I see on wiki that there is a small move to print back home.

    Good thing that I generally write like a drunken doctor so that my writing is illegible at best and incomprehensible in general.

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  18. I'm 81 years old, so you can guess that I grew up with cursive writing. And I've depended on it ever since. Even today, I couldn't do without cursive. I'm constantly writing little notes to myself, to remind me of certain things. I keep the weekly shopping list on the fridge, and add to it (in cursive) as I think of what I need to buy. And when I'm talking to someone on the phone (an old-fashioned land line), if they say something important, I'll make a note of it in cursive so I don't forget it. I could go on, but I won't bore you. Just -- yay cursive!

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  19. It’s hard for Gen Xers who need to read old deeds or other geneological records. I’ve had to translate beautiful 19th century Copperplate script because my colleagues can’t understand it.

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  20. My kids, now 24 and 25, learned both typing and cursive at parochial school in their elementary years. When they got to (public) high school, they found out the other kids never learned cursive, as the school had dropped cursive in favor of typing. So they spent years translating script for their peers. And then they went to college, and did the same.

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  21. I find it astonishing that neither in that article, nor here, has anyone brought up the reason for cursive: the temporary predominance of fountain pens. I also found it exceptionally irritating in the article that "not writing in cursive" is equated with "only typing". I was born in 1969, never learned cursive, and write all the time. Just not with a fountain pen (blech), and not in cursive.

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  22. Neural networks are doing amazing things with languages these days — new devices from Apple can lift text out of photographs or translate printed material in real time. I was surprised to find that it even works on cursive, if right now very poorly. However future historians may be able to rely on improved tools to extract meaning from cursive text.

    Here’s what I was able to pull from the sample image:
    wim
    util
    Hee Waitness
    How we treat. there
    we're alloed to mistreat is the
    meanue of who we are.
    lamie toluell

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