I thought about tackling this argument from the angle of logic, but the whole reason that teams of people have been duped into thinking the elimination of cursive holds any merit in the first place is that logic can simply be deflected by insisting that we are not depriving our children of learning their letters, we are only phasing out an obsolete system of communication. Pen and paper will still be used, but the primary form of written communication will be — indeed, has already become — electronic. On the surface, I can follow this approach, but there is much more beyond mere practicality that this decision does not take into consideration, namely the art of writing.
The first thing to get straight here is that writing — notably, the term that my teachers used for cursive; block letters were just called “print” — is not simply a means of communication any more than math is just a means of computation. But the increasing trend towards keystrokes as opposed to those of the pen suggests that America doesn’t recognize these same complexities. Writing, our culture seems to think, is only a means of relaying a message, and since messages are now primarily delivered through electronic media, there is no need for the antiquated system of curvaceous characters connected to one another. If this is the case, then our culture is wrong.
Writing — and I’m using the term now solely to refer to cursive writing — is, first and foremost, an art form, an extension of a person’s soul. If that sounds too mystical or new age to you, consider this: Do you not recognize immediately the handwriting of someone dear to you? Does it not, somehow, carry with it a tone, a level of voice, mannerisms, perhaps even other characteristics of the author himself? Can it not sometimes actually seem to speak to you as though the author is standing right by your side? Just like the uniqueness of our bodies and minds, no two people have the same handwriting. Eliminating script would be as detrimental to life as eliminating faces, robbing us of the fullness of our own unique arsenal of self-expression. This may seem a ludicrous comparison, but think about communicating with someone whose face cannot be seen. Does it not seem to be lacking something? Certainly, I can receive information from my beloved over the phone, but can her voice alone be a substitute for the fullness of expression I find in her eyes, her mouth, her entire body, even? I should think it obvious that the answer is an emphatic “no.”
In a similar fashion, script is a fuller expression of the written word, something that carries with it more than just letters on paper. A short demonstration: I have in my possession a small collection of notes concerning my grandfather’s whereabouts during World War Two. He was a prisoner of war, and hadn’t been heard from in nearly six months. Back then, long-range radio broadcasts often provided names and general locations of POWs. My great-grandparents didn’t have enough money for such a radio, but when my grandfather’s name was read out, three gentle souls — complete strangers to my family — had the kindness to write very short notes to my great-grandparents informing them of my grandfather’s reported whereabouts. Two of those notes were written; one of them was typed. Now for my great-grandparents, all three letters were of equal weight. They all three told my distant kin that which they so desired to know. But now, almost seventy years later, when I hold these tattered fragments of history in my hand, I am moved to tears not so much by the typewritten note, but by the few barely-legible swoops and swirls on the other two. That’s not to say that there is no gratitude for the typed note — surely the author’s heart was in the same beautiful place — but being so far removed from the situation as I am, the anonymity of the typed note feels disconnected, like a page torn out of an old book. The written notes, on the other hand, bring with them a sense of uniqueness, a sense of reality, a sense of compassion and community between two human strangers; indeed, an actual sense of life.
And that, at the risk of being too new age once more, is the very point: Writing, in some mysterious way, brings with it the essence of life. Think of the love letters that so few people are blessed to receive anymore, or the notes so sporadically sent from dear friends abroad. Would these things still be meaningful in type? Yes, of course. But would they bring with them pieces of the people writing them? I say no, they would not. And while a typed letter may be easier to read, thus more likely to convey the precise words an author intends, this once more misses the greater point, which is that writing carries with it life, and life is, by no means, easy nor is it perfect. We are complex creatures, and so it makes sense that our creations also bear complexities. We are imperfect creatures, so it makes sense that our creations also bear imperfections.It doesn’t matter if there are a few words in a written letter that are difficult to read, nor does it matter if it takes a long time to read a written letter — indeed, the imperfections of a written letter may be the very things that make it so full of life, so full of humanness. The sharp points and perfect circles of type, sans cross-outs and scribbled edits, make processed documents too formal, too precise to communicate the idea that whatever the document, it was created by a very imperfect person. There are times when this typewritten perfection is preferable, perhaps even necessary, such as with newspapers, textbooks, academic papers and works of fiction, where the life breathed into the work comes from elsewhere and the author, in some respects, ought to remain anonymous and authoritative. But when it comes to scrawled notes left on the kitchen counter, heartfelt thank-yous, casual “hellos” or the all-important conveyance of love, neither printing letters nor typewriting will do.
When it comes down to it, I don’t actually think that eliminating the teaching of script will eliminate script altogether. There is something so natural about it in the first place, and there must have been long ago or else the Roman characters we are all so familiar with would never have been connected with such eloquence in the first place. For whatever reason, we want to create writing that is beautiful, outside of ourselves, dare I say even magical. Eliminating the teaching will not eliminate the instinct inside of us to make something more graceful out of the alphabet. But what sort of script comes to pass from this longing without guidance will be sloppy, even sloppier than it already is, and it runs the very severe risk of leaving writers of all walks of life feeling as though something is missing, some refining of this part of the craft, some structure to the marks that they will inevitably make on the world. To rob our children of this important — and I’m going to go ahead and say necessary — skill will do nothing to better our society, make us more productive, give our children a leg-up in education, or make us a more well-rounded people. If anything, it will create a barrier, one that, when all of this shiny technology we love so much finally fails us, will leave our children far behind the rest of the world, depriving them not only of the ability to write fluently, but perhaps even more tragic, stripping them of the delicate splendor found in the penmanship of so many musicians, poets and storytellers. Script is not merely a faster means to an end; it is the very vehicle a writer takes to get there. To do without that is to do without the beauty, mystery, and majesty of one special gift given unto us by God for the goodness of our individual and collective souls.