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Shrinking role of handwritten word

Posted: October 1, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 1, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Over the years the residents of this town tucked into a shoulder of the White Mountains have filled the pages of the local newspaper with heated comments about zoning, a bypass highway, a new school and who deserves to win the New Hampshire primary.

But few issues have prompted such passionate commentary in The Conway Daily Sun as the question of whether handwriting should be taught in the local schools.

One day the paper carried 43 opinions on the topic. Most of them screamed: Of course they should. That includes the reader who said it wouldn’t make any difference, adding: “They can’t spell anyway.”

Maybe they can’t, but the schoolchildren of this community and of thousands of others scattered around the country aren’t being taught a skill so basic that it is almost always listed second in the ancient catechism on the function of schools.

Not that the other two — reading and ‘rithmetic — are not being mastered by our young scholars either, but that’s for another day and another column.

We have in our time witnessed the shrinking role of the handwritten word. We no longer sign for gasoline at self-service pumps and we write emails on a keyboard. The letter is as dead as a form of correspondence as the gavotte is as a form of dance.

The other day I saw someone take out an $85,000 loan with an electronic signature. You would think you might employ at least one of those free plastic hotel pens to borrow $85,000, but it wasn’t necessary.

There are loads of romantic reasons — the kind I like best — for the perpetuation of the handwritten word, and I’m speaking about more than love notes.

There is real intimacy involved in a handwritten thank-you note, so much more personal than an email thanks, which we all know is often dashed off in a few seconds without even the courtesy of pushing the shift button to employ capital letters at the beginning of the sentence. It is heresy, and very bad manners.

There is emotion that can be loaded onto anything written in cursive, impossible to describe but impossible to miss. And there is the utility of picking up a pencil and writing down a phone number or a personal note on a piece of paper and then tucking it into your breast pocket, where there is at least a 50 percent chance you will retrieve it before it goes into the washing machine and leaches all over your best dress shirt — in the increasingly unlikely event you still wear a dress shirt.

Don’t get me started.

All of that is without considering that four of the most important documents in American history were written in forms that resemble script: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address ... and the Laffer Curve that launched the supply-side revolution.

Take away the pen and you erase much of American history. It’s enough to make you think this entire movement away from cursive is a communist plot.

Many of us of a certain age remember the torture imposed upon us by the traveling salvation show run by the evangelists of the Palmer handwriting method. These hard-bitten pilgrims — worse than the volunteer traveling dentists who shoved tongue depressors into our mouths once a year in an often-successful search for cavities — would drive from town to town, reigning terror in classrooms as they assured there was a little jagged edge to the “F” we wrote in the upper case and made sure that the lower-case “z” had the three required precise and distinctive motions.

Today almost every state has endorsed the so-called Common Core, which doesn’t require instruction in cursive. My bet is that the modern way of tackling a running back is taught in more schools than the old-fashioned way of writing out a pass for going to the bathroom.

That means there will be fewer concussions, which is a good thing, but also fewer billets-doux, which is a bad thing, and my point is sealed by the fact that hardly any readers of this column will have the remotest idea what a billet-doux is and even fewer have ever received one.

But the rationale for teaching cursive goes beyond the romantic.

“Writing in cursive is more than making letters,” says Paula Heinricher, who has taught handwriting for eight years in southwestern Pennsylvania through the Handwriting Without Tears program.

“It’s putting letters into words and then into sentences. It’s not copying. It’s expressing ideas.”

There’s hope. This year a handful of schools in the Pittsburgh suburbs instituted a new initiative to teach pupils in kindergarten through the second grade how to print, and next year pupils from the third through the sixth grades will be introduced to cursive.

“It’s still a basic skill,” says Amanda Hartle of the North Hills School District, “and has an effect on all the other parts of students’ educations.”

At least the president still signs bills with a pen. For generations it was a sign of special favor to receive a presidential pen used in the signing of legislation, and grown men and women who wrote or conceived of the bill would brag their entire lives of being presented with a presidential pen.

For years I admired a display in the White House pressroom of 50 pens used by Lyndon Johnson to sign elements of the Great Society.

Barack Obama signed the health care law that bears his name with a pen. His rivals on Capitol Hill are living for the day one of his successors might employ a pen to sign legislation revoking Obamacare.

So maybe there’s a (ball-) point to this column after all: the identification of one element in American life worthy of bipartisan support. 

Let’s end the Washington stalemate by uniting to save cursive. A nation’s sense of itself — and the accessibility of its founding documents — depends on it.

But if you want to start a petition, please require the signatures to be affixed by pen. It’s the least you can do for your country.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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