I’m jealous of my wife.
Long ago, I saw the handwriting; and I’ve lived with the reality that I’ll never measure up.
Hers is perfect, symmetrical, seemingly effortless Palmer Method script. Mine? Passably legible for most of a given sentence, but still so prone to sputters and slip-slides that my Better Half can’t make it through an inscription on an anniversary card without a “What’s this say?”
It’s OK. I can translate. The beauty of the penned version, like that of the plump green gal in Shrek, is not that it’s neat but rather that it’s intimate, unique, tactile, crafted. A human cocreation with the Almighty, like a conservatory of prize-winning roses or a tomato plant in a window box.
There are far more practical reasons for fearing and fighting the extinction of cursive writing as a required academic subject. The fact that many in the younger generation would ask “What’s this say?” even of my wife’s pristine penmanship should scare the hell out of us. Those who breezily consign pens and pencils to the dustbin of pre-digital prehistory are astonishingly (if perhaps willfully) blind to the gap that would leave in the educational, business and domestic tool belt. Handwriting never will be any more obsolete than hands.
That utilitarian case has been made elsewhere and will be returned to here. But what stabs me where I live, as a writer, a student of written history, a believer in the importance of written communication between individuals, is the depersonalization, the commodification, that the erasure of this manual artistry implies.
“All that is personal,” says the poet Wendell Berry, whose letters I’ve been able to collect because he owns no computer, “is threatened.”
And thus valuable –- even commercially. In the current film Danny Collins, based on a true incident, a rock star learns after 30 years that John Lennon wrote him a letter at the dawn of his career, urging him to keep faith and ignore the siren song of easy money. The letter, which might or might not have changed his artistic path, didn’t reach him in the beginning because the magazine writer to whom it was sent held on to it –- presumably for the bucks it might bring.
Had Lennon emailed or Tweeted, he would have left no precious artifact He merely would have donated his pence to the billions piled up by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for fathering our computer literacy.
Not surprisingly, Gates is a star player in the corporate “education reform” movement that stresses computer dominance and its cousins, standardized testing and one-size-fits-all quantification of school “performance.”
Not surprisingly, paper and pencil, with its slow pace, low expenditures and chaotic individualism finds it harder and harder to keep its fair head above water in this flood tide of high-stakes conformity.
The toll mounts. Indiana in 2011 became one of more than 40 states that have dropped cursive writing as a state requirement, and legions of school districts (no one knows how many) have jettisoned the course. Many parents, in turn, are paying for penmanship lessons on the side. They are skeptical their kids will be equipped for the 21st-century marketplace if they can’t sign their names, take notes without gadgets, read archival materials from years past, read handwritten messages that will continue to flow through the century, and write their grandparents thank-you cards for graduation gifts.
Jean Leising agrees with them, and with their feeling they’ve been abandoned by the state.
The Republican state senator from Oldenburg has tried in every legislative session since 2011 to restore cursive as a requirement. The Senate has gone along, and the teachers’ unions and many pedagogy experts have supported her case for linking letters as a cognitive necessity –- a brain trainer. The House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, has consistently killed her proposals, calling this a local matter. Meanwhile, Leising has young pages -– “the best and brightest” –- who can’t sign notes. “I’m just afraid,” she says, “they won’t be able to make it in the world.”
Deciding what’s too important to the state’s future to leave to local discretion is at best an inexact science. Trying to persuade government to go against the grain and defy the general infatuation with computers and enslavement to test scores is a Sisyphian task, indeed. Those in favor will be dismissed as Luddites, clinging to a lost past. In fact, I would argue, they are the true progressives, embracing computer literacy without squeezing out the other essential kind. Bilingual is what they’ll be. And those like myself who speak the old tongue brokenly, will have their turn to be envied.