Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cursive Writing

Yeah, I didn't like it much when I learned it in elementary school. I do remember my elementary teachers hammering it into my head that in high school and college all of my papers would need to be written in cursive. They were wrong (no fault of their own - they just didn't see the computer revolution that was imminent).

So is it worth it to still be teaching cursive? Look at it from a foreign language standpoint. My teachers also beat it into me that learning a foreign language was the doorway to the rest of the world. Really? As I have grown up, I found out no, it isn't - not being afraid to go to a foreign country and ask for help is.

I have been to Canada, England, Germany, India, Japan, and Taiwan. I learned German in high school but never used it. I speak Mandarin which was useful in Taiwan, but I was with native friends so would have survived without knowing any (my wife did fine and she doesn't speak it). Japan, everyone speaks English. India, most people you interact with speak English and the chauffeur I had didn't speak it but we got along fine with sign language and pointing at things.

Had I "listened" to my teachers I would have had to spend years learning German, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Hindi, and Tamil to enjoy the places I have been. I'm glad I didn't. I found English speakers and enjoyed those places anyway. We are fortunate to live in a country where the primary language is English. The rest of the world has adopted English as the de facto language of the world. Which means we don't necessarily have to learn theirs.

Does that mean we shouldn't learn another language? No, but it also means we shouldn't force it on people. One of the great conundrums of the modern world is there is so much knowledge it is impossible to try and gain it all. Leonardo Da Vinci would be flabbergasted by how much a sixth grader has learned. Which means it is more important than ever to prioritize what you are going to learn with your time.

For me, things like 19th century bonnet literature (i.e. Jane Austen) have ZERO value. I am not interested. I think the stories are dull. Unfortunately, my English teachers had different ideas. Good for them. I'm a grown up now and I don't need to waste my time reading "Pride and Prejudice." Would understanding that stuff add value to my life? Probably. My guess is that there are plenty of allusions to "great" 19th century literature throughout life that I miss.

So what? I am not interested. I have chosen to dump that crap from my mind and replace it with scientific knowledge that I like. So, when I read an article on the Higgs-Boson, I see all sorts of nuances that are satisfying and enjoyable to understand. I once spent a two hour meal talking with a stranger about the nuclear fuel process. She seemed genuinely interested and I was happy to impart the knowledge that I had. Do some people do the same with F. Scott Fitzgerald? Absolutely, just not me.

What does this have to do with cursive? Well, it is no longer a necessary skill for the vast majority of written communication. We have computers and Ipads for that. It will always be around in historical documents, but like foreign languages, learning American cursive has its limits. There are plenty of people who have learned the cursive writing styles of 18th century Germans.

Learning to read cursive nowadays is akin to learning juggling. It is a neat skill to have, but very limited practical applications. If you are going to be a clown in the circus, by all means juggling becomes a necessary skill. For someone like me, it is just a trick I do to entertain my kids. Likewise, reading and writing cursive is a must for historians and genealogists. For the rest of us it is a parlor trick to decipher hidden codes. Juggling and cursive writing are rather easy skills to acquire. It probably takes less than a month of a little practice each day to become proficient (I learned juggling over the course of a month in New Jersey, maybe a half hour of practice a day). My wife taught my daughter cursive in about the same amount of time.

So, no, we shouldn't force everyone to learn cursive anymore than we should force them all to learn juggling. Even though it takes minimal time to learn, our schools shouldn't fill up their time with "useless" skills that take minimal time. Let's all recognize that cursive's time has come and gone. But if your kids want to learn cursive, or you want to teach them this curiosity on your time, by all means do it!

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