What Does it Mean for History that Gen Z Can't Read Cursive?Roundup
Drew Gilpin Faust is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and a former president of Harvard University, where she is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor. She is the author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
It was a good book, the student told the 14 others in the undergraduate seminar I was teaching, and it included a number of excellent illustrations, such as photographs of relevant Civil War manuscripts. But, he continued, those weren’t very helpful to him, because of course he couldn’t read cursive.
Had I heard him correctly? Who else can’t read cursive? I asked the class. The answer: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Even more. What did they do about signatures? They had invented them by combining vestiges of whatever cursive instruction they may have had with creative squiggles and flourishes. Amused by my astonishment, the students offered reflections about the place—or absence—of handwriting in their lives. Instead of the Civil War past, we found ourselves exploring a different set of historical changes. In my ignorance, I became their pupil as well as a kind of historical artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a transformed world.
In 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in “keyboarding” assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world.
Although I was unaware of it at the time, the 2010 Common Core policy on cursive had generated an uproar. Jeremiads about the impending decline of civilization appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Defenders of script argued variously that knowledge of cursive was “a basic right,” a key connection between hand and brain, an essential form of self-discipline, and a fundamental expression of identity. Its disappearance would represent a craven submission to “the tyranny of ‘relevance.’ ”
Within a decade, cursive’s embattled advocates had succeeded in passing measures requiring some sort of cursive instruction in more than 20 states. At the same time, the struggle for cursive became part of a growing, politicized nostalgia for a lost past. In 2016, Louisiana’s state senators reminded their constituents that the Declaration of Independence had been written in cursive and cried out “America!” as they unanimously voted to restore handwriting instruction across the state.
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