Friday, August 26, 2016

Zombies and the Great Cursive Debate

I can’t remember when I first heard about the heated debate going on over cursive back in the US. I do however remember my reaction: “Figures.”

Living as an expat and teacher in Asia, I’ve watched my country from overseas since the mid-1990s, and have learned to expect that if a policy represents dumbing down, most Americans will be cheering it on.

Reading the debate in the press, I found the usual predictable points made by the anti-cursive camp--"It will save classroom time!” key among them, of course. But was more depressed by the often misguided counterpoints made by the pro-cursive camp--"How will kids read their grandparents' old letters?" etc.

Given the lame level of this debate and the generally bad pedagogy in vogue, I could see the pro-cursive camp was fated to lose.

And they did. Cursive is now federally frowned upon. Yet another card pulled from the teetering house of cards.

The pro-cursive camp, I think, would have done better if they'd just stuck to basic truths in this debate, like reminding their adversaries: “You’re all fucking MORONS! Remove handwriting from education? You're fucking IDIOTS! We're going to SECEDE!”

I'm actually convinced this is the only way to deal with these people. Debating them is impossible. Just call a spade a spade.

Then we'll set up an alternative state somewhere else on the globe where watching reality TV is a punishable offense and kids learn not just cursive but also classics and manners and also that there are two genders, male and female, rather than seventeen.

Jump to this month, August. A few days ago a high school friend of mine, I’ll call him Steve, who graduated from the University of Chicago no less, and who, as a technophile, considered himself in the anti-cursive camp, posted on Facebook a New York Times editorial by one Anne Trubek opining that cursive was unnecessary and that “the kids will be alright.” This bit of offensive NYT blather is titled “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter”. And the kids aren’t alright. They already aren’t alright, never mind what they “will be” after a dozen more years of the anomie we’re raising them into.

I should point out that Steve and I have both just turned fifty, that we remain good friends since we left high school in the 1980s, and that we tend to disagree strongly on what are called "hot button" issues. The caption Steve added to his posting of Ms. Trubek's article showed his typical approach of cool optimism whenever such questions come up:

Soon the conspiracy theorists will be claiming that this is yet another example of turning our children into brainwashed automatons. Change is tough. Especially on the old.

For Steve, anyone who points to educational decline and sees the culture going to hell is just being “alarmist”. I’ve written him before about his scary inability, as a University of Chicago graduate, to differentiate between its and it’s and compliment and complement and suchlike things, but carping on English usage to Steve is counterproductive. He replies with an emoticon with its tongue stuck out. If he’s forced to use actual words, they are: “Lighten up dude. Its not important.”

For Steve, people who even use words like civilization are being alarmist by definition. Because, don’t you know, civilization grows on trees. And there are trees all over, dude.

The first two of Steve’s friends to comment in the thread were also in the “Civilization? Who cares?” camp. They wrote:

MARY S.: Oh thank you thank you thank you for posting this article, Steve! I feel like I am shouting into the wilderness when I say that cursive offers no special cognitive advantages over printing, no special ability to "read historical documents" (as someone who actually has read handwritten historical documents, I can assure everyone that older styles of penmanship are so different from our own that knowing cursive is no help--plus, why waste millions of precious learning hours teaching something that only the tiny minority of kids who go on to be academic historians will ever use?), no special fine motor skills that couldn't be better taught by learning to cook or sew a button back on. Change is hard, except for those of us who remember sitting inside on a beautiful day, hunching over our desks for hours a week, papers at a perfect 45-degree angle, meticulously drawing little parallel lines. My son is old enough to have had some cursive in school, while my daughter didn't have it at all. Let cursive go the way of button-hooks, itchy starched collars, and other anachronisms!

ALANIA C.: YES! I hurt my wrist and write like crap and then this. Well played universe, well played.

I couldn’t let all this slide. The Pokemon Go phenomenon already has me in a bad state this summer, and seeing all this on a friend’s wall, I had to deliver a few punches. The thread went on as you see below. What surprised me, this time, is that in the end I actually won Steve over. That is a rarity. In fact I'm not sure I’d ever before convinced Steve of anything.

ERIC MADER: The end of cursive handwriting would be a great cultural loss. The decline of writing on paper is already a serious loss. For many reasons. One of the most basic reasons being cognitive. Studies have shown it.

In general you’re a geek about these things, Steve. But get something in your head: You and your friend Mary and the others in your camp will eventually be devoured by cyborg zombies. And in my mind, the worst thing about this is that you'll probably all enjoy it. Hell, you’re half-devoured already.

I ain’t even gonna debate this with you it's so fucking obvious. I live in a culture where kids, just in order to READ, have to learn three thousand different handwritten characters. We're talking thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. And this basic hard work of learning the writing system deepens their respect for the content they learn and sharpens their skills in so many ways. So that in most other subjects, often even including the foreign language ENGLISH, they could outperform their American peers who over there in the States can graduate high school by learning to wipe their asses and spell their names. I've seen this happen over and over--kids leaving Taipei and going to school in the US and realizing it's a joke. I have kids, in regular public schools here, who study English no more than an hour or two a day and have larger ENGLISH vocabulary and better spelling and grammar than the majority of American kids their age.

“Millions of precious learning hours wasted" on cursive? It’s a fucking joke. Many of my pre-teen students TEACH THEMSELVES English cursive just for fun. They do it in a couple afternoons. After which they'll often hand me homework and essays in English in perfectly functional cursive.

SHAME on America. “Hours wasted” indeed!

STEVE L.: I didnt write the article man. And I guess you didnt read it, because according to the article (and I dont have an opinion on this actually as I dont know enough about cognitive brain functions) what you say is not true when it comes to learning. But hey, take it up with the author. And as for being a zombie, you too will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

ERIC MADER: You posted the article man. And I did read it and have read into the positions of the two sides in this debate. And this NYT piece, in the spectrum of this debate, is simply DAFT. Its arguments are shallow. It's typical of a new strain at the NYT, a paper growing DAFTER and DAFTER every year. Along with the whole country.

When we all hit 70 or so, if we're still around, we're going to see just what kind of culture our "reforms" and “advances" have brought about. The key difference is that you, muttering "Holy shit", are going to be surprised. I'm not.

Resistance will continue.

BRIAN D.: Steve, I don't need cursive to write this: I will wrestle you for food. Cursive is just one stop on the road to anarchy. And no, I don’t need to read the article to register my desire to wrestle you for food. THAT should be a given.

LOUISE B.: Aside from the arguments made in the article, my gut (a pretty accurate scientific barometer, if I do say so myself) dislikes the loss of any learning opportunity. My sisters were forced to conform their writing through hours of repetition. Though I learned cursive, it wasn't perfected at their level. I believe we should throw cursive at the kids just to expose them to the art of written language. Cave drawings, the development of written language around the world, evolution of cursive, etc. Let kids play with it: feather quills, calligraphic nibs, roller balls, the speed of texting and typing--let them play with all of it.

STEVE L.: I would be happy to say the jury is still out. I can also say this: I haven't actually written in cursive in any extended way, save my signature, in years. I also don't think that the merits of learning cursive have ever equalled the seeming abuse left handed writers have faced in American schools. But who knows, maybe learning cursive, just like riding horses (animal empathy) or chopping wood for fire (connection to environment) has/does make us better people. I simply don't know. Apparently you do, on the cursive issue anyway.

ERIC MADER: I haven't done algebra in 30-some years, or much of any other math other than calculating percentages. I haven't worked through a geometric proof either. That doesn't mean I would subscribe to arguments that we should get rid of these basic elements of education just because they aren't "the skills needed for the job market".

That you personally haven't written in cursive doesn't mean much. I write almost everything important that I write on paper, in CURSIVE, and many writers of the books published every year do the same. If I didn't know how to write cursive, my handwriting would be slowed considerably, and I'd need a digital device of some kind to keep recording words at the pace of my thoughts. I'd be seriously hampered if for some reason a digital device wasn't at hand. I short, you take away cursive skills, and you take away a huge swathe of important cultural work, journal writing, personally handwritten notes, novels, poetry, etc., that is better done, according to many professional writers, on paper first. And you permanently link that very crucial cultural process called writing to access to digital devices. Are you sure you want to do all this?

I would have to say that yes, on this issue, I do know the right side.

STEVE L.: Excellent points. Consider me converted. Not kidding. Reason. It is a great thing.

ERIC MADER: Glad to hear. You’ve proven yourself an honest man. But that has a downside. When those cyborg zombies come to finish you off a couple decades from now, if you’re still an honest man, you won't actually enjoy it like I thought.

The arguments of mine that convinced you are really only a small part of the question of what is at stake in this kind of debate.

Anthropologists GET the fact that societies or civilizations hold together in myriad complex ways, often in ways that nobody in the society itself understands or knows consciously. Anthropologists have documented in case after case how pulling out only a couple little rivets is all it takes to cause the whole culture to fall into decline. Pulling out this or that rivet, especially in a practice as central to us as reading or writing, is going to have complex interactions with the whole of the structure. It’s going to have repercussions that we can't foresee. Any change, however reasonable or practical it may look at the moment, may play a role in ushering in things we really don't want.

All advanced civilizations that we know of have taught the young to write by making marks or characters on some surface. Forming these written marks BY HAND. We don't know of any advanced civilization that HASN'T included this practice. The upshot: We simply can't know much about what a civilization based on typing, texting or voice input (which is where it will lead) will be like. Going that direction as a pedagogical norm or goal, we may very well be undermining a whole host of other things in ways we can't even predict. Again: for a certain kind of cognitive development alone I strongly suspect handwriting is crucial.

Yes, resistance may be futile given the fast-growing cyborg zombie demographic. But I would still say: Resist!

Eric Mader

Check out my book Idiocy, Ltd. at and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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