On my first day of school as a seven year old, I made a momentous decision to flunk out of the second grade. I hadn’t been at my new desk five minutes before I warily surveyed the scary cursive alphabet chart above the chalkboard, knew I’d be expected to learn it, and never would. With tears welling up in my eyes, I plotted out the remainder of my life as a second grade drop out.
My parents had a different view of my decision; no child of theirs was going to be set loose in the world if she couldn’t read and write cursive. Indeed, the more knowledge the nuns could stuff into my little brain, the better, and I had better get used to the idea by the second day of school. It was the standard with which I grew up, passed on to my own children, and is probably why I reacted poorly when I was told by a new acquaintance a few days ago that his fourteen-year-old son couldn’t read cursive.
I shouldn’t have been unduly surprised, I suppose, since I had a dim awareness that for the past 20 years, public schools have been de-emphasizing, if not abandoning, teaching cursive to students. To have certain knowledge that there are teenagers within my midst who can’t read handwriting, however, was mind boggling to me. I couldn’t have been more shocked than if the parent had told me his son had a prehensile tail and farted rainbows.
I’ve been thinking about this kid ever since, and with a real sense of pity. He can’t read the letters his grandmother got from her sweetheart, his granddad, while he was stationed in Viet Nam. He can’t read the journals or diaries his ancestors kept, and he sure can’t read the signatures of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence. Now days later, I’m still so disturbed by the gap in this kid’s schooling that I feel it’s nothing short of educational malpractice.
It’s what happens when one group (in this case, parents) abdicates their authority to another group trusted to know what’s best for the rest of us.
The reasons for not teaching cursive are by now well rehearsed: Cursive is labor intensive to teach and to learn; educators need to focus on subjects which are relevant to today’s world (and upon which students will be tested); keyboards have made handwriting obsolete. Following that logic, we should also abandon simple arithmetic because we have calculators. Aside from my disagreement that cursive is useless, I think school boards have missed the point. We should be teaching our kids more, not less. In dog show parlance, an “L” pattern is rarely requested in a show ring, but handlers should still learn how to perform it. There are good reasons for a dog to learn how to gait on the opposite side of a handler. They include putting distance between the dog and an undesirable situation, an injury to the left hand – even compensating for a handler’s limp (I’ve seen all three happen in the ring).
Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers, reports that even in schools where handwriting is still taught, the amount spent on the skill amounts to just over an hour a week. Teachers facing the “common core” curriculum are asking themselves where they can cut back in order to keep up, and it’s usually penmanship.
In my view, this is a mistake. Studies have proved that students are more literate if they can read and write cursive, and magnetic resonance imaging has shown that learning how to write improves idea composition and expression while helping with fine motor-skill development. Cursive writing also teaches perseverance because it’s not easy to learn. It requires focus and determination – something I learned in the second grade when the will of my parents trumped my fear of failure.
I can’t imagine anything as important as people being able to communicate with each other and with previous generations through every available means. Left up to me, kids would be learning American Sign Language and a foreign language from kindergarten, as well, but at a minimum, they have to learn how to read and write to each other.
In the week leading up to the year 2000, the television network, A & E, asked who the 100 Most Influential People of the Millennium were and revealed the answers on an episode of Biography on New Year’s Eve. Below are the top nine people on the list, but I’ve left off number one to see if you can guess who was named the most influential person of the Millennium. As I saw it, there was only one obvious choice. See if you agree:
10. Galileo Galileo
9. Nicolaus Copernicus (astromony)
8. Albert Einstein (physicist)
7. Karl Marx (19th c. political writer)
6. Christopher Columbus (explorer)
5. William Shakespeare (Renaissance playwright)
4. Charles Darwin (evolutionist writer)
3. Martin Luther (Protestant Reformation)
2. Isaac Newton (gravity)
Who’s missing? Who could possibly be more important than Isaac Newton?
Johann Gutenberg, that’s who. Without his movable type for a printing press that made available mass communication, the world wouldn’t have known of the advances made by the other nine people in the list.
Print came before cursive, of course, but it didn’t take long for the special few who knew how to print to realize that connecting letters was faster than printing, and that the fragile quills with which they wrote lasted longer if they didn’t have to pick up the quill each time they started a new letter. In the Persian, Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets, many or all letters in a word are connected, sometimes making a word one single complex stroke. It wasn’t just one man’s idea.
The ultimate point of my rant on the importance of learning cursive, however, is that we got to this point by trusting others to do what is best for us. The father of the 14 year old boy I mentioned earlier is none too pleased that his son can’t read handwriting, but he shrugged his shoulders at the look on my face as if to say, “Well, schools are the experts, I guess they know what they’re doing.”
His kid can’t read a handwritten grocery list, let alone write one, and that’s a good thing?
There is a lesson to be learned from this for dog owners in general, and dog fanciers in particular, and that lesson is this: We can’t trust others to do what is in our best interest, we have to do it ourselves. At the heart of the animal rights agenda is a sentiment that would see the end of all pet ownership, and yet animal lovers continue to contribute to the Humane Society of the United States even though the group is working towards the end of pet ownership. Fanciers trusted the AKC to speak on their behalf, but how’s that working out for us? There are individuals who work hard to attend legislative sessions, monitor the HSUS and speak out against laws and practices that threaten our dogs and our sport, but there aren’t nearly enough of us doing it. At this rate, the next generation of fourteen year olds will wonder what dog shows were like, and what it felt like to touch a Poodle.
If you doubt me, and you’re of a certain age, did you ever imagine a time when a 14 year old couldn’t read handwriting or write cursive?