A Rumination on Cursive

As I was writing in my journal a few days back, I found myself musing on the pen-hand I use to do so. Part of why I keep the journal is to give myself something like consistent practice with the physical act of writing (I get quite enough of typing, as I think is clear enough), though I know many would say that the way I write has never been good and is not getting much better, if it is at all. Still, I spend more time doing it than a great many people do, so it’s not an issue of practice so much as it is of other things. (Incompetence is a likely candidate.)

Journal and Pen
Yep, this again.
The picture is still mine.

Thinking on it, though, I remembered or realized or recognized that “cursive” is not a single thing. There’s a version in HTML coding with which I’m familiar, for one thing:

𝒶 𝒷 𝒸 𝒹 ℯ 𝒻 ℊ 𝒽 𝒾 𝒿 𝓀 𝓁 𝓂 𝓃 ℴ 𝓅 𝓆 𝓇 𝓈 𝓉 𝓊 𝓋 𝓌 𝓍 𝓎 𝓏

It’s not the same that I “learned” in school, to be sure. That was something between Zaner-Bloser, Palmer, and D’Nealian, as memory serves. (For the record, I think the last is the closest to what I did not learn well.)

An example of Zaner-Bloser cursive taken from Wikipedia and which I am told is public domain
An example of Palmer cursive taken from Wikipedia and which I am told is also public domain
An example of D’Nealian cursive taken from Wikipedia and which is used under a Creative Commons license from Andrew Buck

None of them is the way I write now, though. My A and my T are perhaps the easiest examples; I write an A that an old girlfriend used, and I borrow my T from that Tolkien uses. And in the latter, I am reminded most strongly of the ways in which our backgrounds shape us, even in things as seemingly insignificant as what form of a character we use to represent some set of sounds.

It is because we are shaped in such ways that curricular decisions–and teaching cursive in schools, which I still expect my daughter will face in a few years, is a curricular decision–matter, and all such decisions are inherently political in the sense that they emerge from and tend to reinforce the structures and beliefs of particular groups of people. (Yes, this is often partisan as US politics understands the term, but it is not exclusively so.) To follow the example, whether cursive is taught in the classroom or not is a political decision; having it indicates a belief by the school’s governing body or bodies that it is worth spending instructional time on, which means there are other things which are not given that time, but not having it suggests that the school’s governing body or bodies believe it is not worth the time, which, in turn, can bespeak an orientation towards other forms of knowledge or an expectation that the students’ homes will teach them such things–and that has implications about those homes that can be followed but too often are not.

More–and I speak from my experience in this–such things often get used as short-hand for assessing the worth of a person. Like all “mannerly” things, cursive gets used to determine in- and out-groups (making it once again political in that it helps determine who “belongs” where and with whom), the form of the letters being used to justify (not) reading the words that they form. I well understand the demands of grading; I did enough of it in thirteen years of teaching. I know that, given course loads and class sizes, shortcuts become more and more inviting. I also know that untangling writing is a demanding task; I am a medievalist, after all, and I have the sensation that many who complain of my pen-hand would have some sort of conniption to see what some of the scribes I’ve seen left behind on the page. But I also know that the ability to think through a thing and explain it well is a different skill-set than calligraphy, and I know that telling a convincing story has damned little to do with manual dexterity, and many, many brilliant people have been excluded for dismissive, elitist reasons such as using the wrong letter Z.

Hell, I’ve had pieces win awards and get me paid that earned failing grades when I turned them in in my poor pen-hand.

This is not to say I am against teaching cursive, or any particular form of cursive, in schools. I am against teaching it without thinking about and having a damned good answer for why it’s done–and “because that’s how I had it” isn’t good enough; we’re supposed to be trying to make things better for the kids now, and they can’t be better if they stay the same. It’s an art, and the arts should be taught in school–but it is also the case that there is only so much instructional time available, and including a thing necessarily excludes others, so there ought to be good reason why the one is kept and the other discarded.

I’m not prepared to venture into that particular question at the moment; I expect I’ll have other opportunities. And I expect that as my daughter gets further into schooling–assuming such things continue to exist–I’ll have more subjects to consider. I’ve already been struck by the differences in our experiences, my daughter’s and mine, and I think she has generally gotten the better ones (barring the global pandemic, clearly). For now, though, I have some more that I need to write.

Pens could be cheaper; help me buy some more?

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