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The fall of cursive

Barry McNamara
07/08/2011
Associate professor Craig Vivian plays chess with College For Kids students
Writing a “What I did on my summer vacation” essay is a back-to-school ritual each August. Frequently, while penning those chronicles about summer “R&R,” students need a refresher course on one of education’s “three Rs” – writing – as they struggle to remember such rules of cursive as how many humps to put in an “m” and how to write a capital “Q.”

Craig Vivian, who helps prepare dozens of teacher candidates each year in his role as an associate professor of educational studies at Monmouth College, understands a recent decision in Indiana that would make it just two Rs – reading and ’rithmetic – with writing, specifically cursive writing, eliminated.

Thanks to a directive from Indiana’s education department, students will no longer have to “relearn” cursive each August, because they won’t be asked to learn it in the first place. School districts are now allowed to stop teaching cursive, shifting the emphasis to keyboard proficiency. Districts will be allowed to teach cursive if they so choose, but it’s likely that the “archaic” practice will join the likes of other once-useful skills such as churning butter and hitching a horse to a wagon.

Vivian was asked his take on the decision in Indiana and how it reflects on the state of education in the 21st century.

“Curricula change, as do fashions,” he replied. “This news story reminded me of the ‘Saber-Tooth Curriculum’ by J. Abner Peddiwell, a satirical piece aimed at discrediting the notion that a static curriculum helps to maintain a proper education. Is cursive writing necessary? No more necessary than typing will be in 10 years. We are already far down the voice recognition road.”

Vivian said that writing has lost its relevancy in high schools, so the faster system of writing – cursive – “has lost its raison d’etre.”

“Schools don’t even need to replace cursive training with keyboard training,” he said. “The current wave of students are skilled thumb-texters. Let them text the few papers they will write in school.”

Similarly, noted Vivian, another technological advancement will eliminate the need for individuals to know cursive to write their signatures.

“It won’t be long before we will be offered, for a small fee, a selection of personalized ‘signatures’ to choose from to add to our text messages,” he said.

Vivian said the decision in Indiana speaks to a broader issue.

“The interesting question is, how will schools adapt to rapidly evolving technological tools? In fact, technology has started to become the new de facto curriculum.”

One way they have adapted is through Smart Boards, the interactive whiteboards developed by Smart Technologies that are present throughout the local school district.

“Technology has come to mean a blending of audio-visual connectivity in schools,” said Vivian. “What all of the newer technologies have in common is more reliance on visual – and, specifically, graphical – displays that allow manipulation by teachers and students.”

In some ways, Vivian said, “hands-on” learning is taking over at all levels of education.

“Look at the last 10 years,” he said. “In 2000, PDAs had a stylus, which was really a continuation of the writing (pencil) technology that we had been using. Within a few years, the stylus was gone. Now the hand and fingers control iPads and smart phones. Smart Boards still have a ‘pencil’ to write with, but I imagine that in a few years the Smart Board will be just a large 3-D touch pad.”

What could this mean for students?

“Perhaps education will become the activity-driven visualization of ideas rather than the orthographic creation of ideas,” Vivian concluded.