Learning Cursive: Minds in Our Hands

[Editor’s note: a portion of the below was published by the Herald Times as a Guest Column on July 19th.]

The July 17th commentary by Mike Leonard in the Herald Times regarding “cursors over cursive”  struck a cord with me as I am, it must be noted, a distant relative of Ned Ludd. Distant, as here I am writing online with my laptop.  The piece highlights the recent decision by the Indiana State Board of Education to make the teaching of cursive “optional” in classroom curricula.

A recent debate with friends (most of them flesh and blood friends and not digital facsimiles of “the signified”) on Facebook offered several positions on this issue, all of which seemed valid.  Those in a kind of agreement noted: 1) Who cares?  I don’t write in cursive and I haven’t used a pencil in decades.  2) Why waste time on cursive when kids can’t read? (I know many kids who read very well!) 3) I feel like I communicate better on the computer anyway! 4) State “I-Step” requirements necessitate composition on computers, so might as well teach it that way.

Those in opposition were fewer in number and their arguments less easily enumerated, but perhaps they can be summed up as counter-arguments to those that seemed to approve of the proposal.

Writing with a pen or a pencil and typing are two different physical actions. Granted that I can’t speak to the neurological implications, but I suspect that the physical act of writing creates a particular kind of mind, while typing another type, and texting and or twittering another type.  Built or technical environments contribute to if not dominate to our sense of self; what kind of mind is promoted by “speed” and software functionality?

Proponents of the “freeing” aspect of computer literacy via Facebook, email, Twitter, etc., see the machine as a tool of expression. I understand this point but would assert that typeface is not self-evident as a function of a person–it’s flat and inhuman, detached if you will; making minds susceptible to the irreality and irresponsibility of point and click warfare.

The machine is not just a tool for your expression. It is a tool of manipulation and institutional domination. That cannot be contested. In fact our schools can, from one perspective (and I would bet that their very architecture bolsters this perspective) be viewed as “prisons” or “factories” of domination and indoctrination. The computer facilitates these “hidden” modes of conscription.

Writing by hand does take time; a pen creates thinkers who are grazers, slow and thoughtful

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.  That kind of writing bolsters more considered thought.

As a parent I want more out of education than learning motor skills that can easily be detached from thought. Also, another ramification of further computerization is that this will lead to a reduction in instructors (note I did not use “teacher” and neither will the school systems in the future) or “interventionists” as the goal will be fluency in recognizing commands and prompts (and products) on a computer screen. (I believe this is how one graduates for our War College now.) One nation, under remediation…

Likely one can discern that I am at best skeptical towards the value of our ever-expanding reliance on technology in education (in life) and at worst that I am decidedly suspicious of its use in dominating social realities from the “top down”.

But there are other aspects to learning handwriting that are also disappearing from our culture and in some respects we might imagine this to have a cumulative effect on brain development.  Writing by hand is, by necessity a slow, meditative process.  It is akin to practicing certain arts like painting.  But it is perhaps obviously something more like calligraphy: a form of written language as art, as performance.  But one can easily extend this to playing a musical instrument.  We embody these and in so doing become more fully ourselves.

Consider this summary of research from an article in the Annual Review of Psychology:

“What this leads to is the realization that perceptual-motor skills are no less intelligent than intellectual skills. The fact that modern technology has enabled computers to beat the world’s greatest chess master (Newsweek May 5, 1997), but has not yet enabled robots to climb trees as well as five-year-olds or pick strawberries as well as farm workers attests to the fact that our understanding of the psychological substrates of perceptual-motor skill is still primitive compared to what we know about intellectual skills. We have verbal intelligence that makes it easier for us to describe verbal intelligence than to describe nonverbal intelligence, but we must be careful not to conclude from this that perceptual-motor skills are inferior to their intellectual counterparts.”

What I find most fascinating there is the contention that computers can, perhaps, match the human mind in a conceptual, structural manner–if programmed appropriately and within established parameters of “choices”.   Chess may have many moves but the game requires “playing an opponent” who has a “strategy” in mind and strategies tend to be “finite” in number due to game parameters.

But the point is that our bodies are massively more complex (and the brain is “body” too) and even the simple act of walking requires too many calculations to “code”; hence very strange robotic motion.  And hence the assertion above of perceptual-motor skills being intelligent.

I have argued that handwriting is just that kind of physical intelligence but one that links the verbal intelligence to the motor intelligence.  I cannot claim the effect of this mode of writing without acknowledging the clear fact that writing on the computer with a keyboard is also perceptual-motor.  But the question to think about is the difference between the activities and how they affect the development of the mind (or brain, if you prefer).

A very interesting piece on the “haptics” of writing (the science of the sense of touch) and how our tools are redirecting the very process of “embodied thought” offers up the following from Martin Heidegger in (1942).

When writing with a typewriter, Heidegger says, “the word no longer passes through the hand as it writes and acts authentically but through the mechanized pressure of the hand. The typewriter snatches script from the essential realm of the hand – and this means the hand is removed from the essential realm of the word. The word becomes something ‘typed.’ […] Mechanized writing deprives the hand of dignity in the realm of the written word and degrades the word into a mere means for the traffic of communication. Besides, mechanized writing offers the advantage of covering up one’s handwriting and therewith one’s character.”

Heidegger is framing the directly human action versus the mechanized mediation of mind-directed action.  Perhaps this now seems quaint.  Perhaps it’s hopelessly “conservative” to ask that we turn to the human in our thinking and acting; that we turn to the natural process of being in the world reserved for the connections made with flesh and blood and turn away from the mechanical/technological/digital processes that are framing us out of our very understanding of what it means to be a creature “of the world”.

A focus on “learning” within an environment framed by software and keyboard actions is incredibly narrow and intellectually reductive in the extreme.  Any curriculum that privileges these actions over those of cursive or even print handwriting is limiting and constraining the minds of its students.  In fact, the education on offer is simply one that a “machine” might create for us.  In other words narrow, singular and detached from the infinite variability of the organic being called the human.

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  1. Kate Gladstone August 28, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Handwriting matters … But does cursive matter?

    Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citation on request.)

    Reading cursive still matters — this takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification for writing it.

    Remember, too: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don’t take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone — CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    Director, the World Handwriting Contest
    Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting trainer app for iPhone/iPad
    6-B Weis Road, Albany, NY 12208-1942 USA • telephone 518-482-6763

    1. Douglas Storm August 28, 2011 at 7:17 am

      Kate, thanks for the response, but your position is compromised by being motivated as one pushing her wares.

      I wouldn’t argue against your point as I am concerned to keep our hands engaged with tools that foster a certain kind of brain development. I’d prefer you’d have more to say about why handwriting matters, cursive, print, or the hybrid you speak of.


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