November 4, 2019 0

Words on Words: Cursive

Words on Words: Cursive

Hi. Welcome to Words on Words, a podcast brought
to you by the University of Nevada Reno Writing and Speaking Center. I’m Alec Brown. Mysteries always start with a corpse. A disgruntled detective is called to the alleyway
where they lay, or they’re found in a bathroom by an unsuspecting teenager. Then it’s a one way track of interrogating
suspects before coming to the surprising yet inevitable conclusion that it was really Aunt
Jenkins, who got uncharacteristically jealous. Case solved. I’m sorry, but there’s no corpse in this
one. What I found instead, and need to confide
in you about, is a ghost: something that’s not quite here, but never really went away
properly either. Some people believe it should stay. They invoke its name, try to pass bills and
sign petitions to keep the spirit bound here. Critics think it has no place in the modern
world, floating about like it does. It waits in every classroom, every court building,
every steel government structure. Like a kid in a white sheet with two holes
punched in the head, it just looks. And says nothing. I’m talking about cursive. Everyone knows what it is or has learned it
to some extent. But for everyone born into the 2000’s, it’s
something that’s taught for a few weeks and then entirely forgotten about It’s a
self-fulfilling loop. No one uses it. So no one teaches it. No one teaches it, so no one uses it. Let me read you a letter. This is from Gina Walsh to the Indianapolis
Star. “My German grandmother and German mother
corresponded in the 1950s and 1960s using the old German script that was changed by
Hitler in the 1940s. I have many of those letters and have spent
several years trying to get them read and translated. No one can read the old script; the generation
that can read it has died. Therefore, some of my family history has been
lost. If we do not teach cursive, this same scenario
will happen to many others in future generations. They would not be able to read any of our
historical documents or their personal family histories. I would not wish my plight on anyone” I can tell you how many research articles
that have proven just how useful cursive is for the brain’s development. I can list to you the percentages of increased
reading comprehension in third graders or the manual dexterity in kindergartners. There’s such an enormity of conversation
around the subject—it’s a vortex difficult not to get sucked into if you truly look for
it. One of the most strongly-worded and maybe
elitist articles I’ve ever seen is on this topic—it’s called “Nation of Adults
that Write like Children.” Every teacher and school administrator has
a different stance, and so does every school and administrator in every nation. There are so many more letters like this one,
citing a potential or very real loss in history: the possibility that we may forget everything
about our past. The truth is, unfortunately, cursive is gone
anyway. I can’t tell you what exactly drove me to
start looking into this. Maybe it was the vague frustration I have
with only learning it for a week before no one ever mentioned it again, or the slight
shame I have whenever I write in my swirling, incomprehensible signature at the bottom of
a receipt. Or maybe it was the sound. It’s something that I’ll never truly get
out of my mind. There’s something about cursive that’s
just so… (Pen noises), and so (Pen noises). It scratches something in the back of my brain
that nothing else can reach. At the same time, there’s something so (keyboard
noises) about typing. There’s a different rhythm to it. It’s dramatic. It’s like a march across a battlefield (sound of marching), and hitting spacebar after every word is like the bass drums pulsing in the
back line. Is cursive dead? Is it cold and lifeless? And if not, what is it? The short answer is, well, kind of. The answer is a little complicated. The thing is, there are two parts of cursive. First, cursive as a technology. And second, cursive as an art form. What happened, thanks to the typewriter, the
computer, the credit card, and so many more inventions, is that it stopped being a technology. See, cursive used to be everywhere. If you lived in the 1900’s for a good portion
of your life, you would have had cursive lessons for several hours every day. It was its own individual grade, and you even
had to compete against other students to see who had the best handwriting in certain schools. It was a pillar of discipline and learning,
the symbol of a good student. We even had secretary schools specifically
for hand-writing, as well as reading it, much like how the New York Tribune had a staff
member whose sole job was to read Horace Greeley’s handwriting. These secretaries would ultimate write down
what their supervisors wanted to send to other people. And funnily enough we still have that technology,
but now we shout at computers instead of people to write our emails. Times have changed. While there’s plenty of evidence to support
that cursive encourages brain development, hand-eye coordination, and confidence, there’s
no evidence that tells us it’s any faster or any more legible than typing. In a world of widely distributed information,
I have the keyboard to thank for letting me walk into the library and read anything contained
in the books there. If cursive was the way of the world, quite
frankly, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Schools have already phased it out of curriculums. Common Core doesn’t support cursive education,
standardized tests don’t care about handwriting, and no one writes cursive on a daily basis
when the keyboard is a more effective, more legible alternative. And soon, even credit card receipts won’t
need signatures anymore. The long and short of it is that cursive has
lost its status as a technology. So what is it now? I have an afternoon class this semester on
ancient Chinese civilization. It’s in a big amphitheatre-like classroom,
where the teacher stands at the bottom and shouts up at the rows of students seated above
him. I usually take a seat at the back, the highest
row. It lets me get in and out easier, and avoid
hustling to get up and down the stairs. And what I see from up there is about 50/50. That’s about 50% of people using computers
or laptops to take notes, and about 50% of people using journals or sketchbooks. And about half of the people on laptops do
other things during class. I see people chatting with friends, I see
one guy looking at gifs of Alex Jones edited to look like Goku going Super Saiyan, I see
one guy playing Assassin’s Creed. Some others use their time on the computer
to help their learning. They look up maps of China when the teacher
brings them up and pastes them into their notes. I’m on the guilty side. I regularly chat with friends and work on
other projects between taking notes on the lecture. When I have the power and the speed of the
computer, it’s like my mind can’t do anything but use it. All the time. It’s like my daydreaming has become facilitated
on a screen. I’m pulled in. And of those who use journals, only a small
fraction use anything like cursive—it’s either print or a mixture of print and cursive. It ultimately comes down to personal preference. Because now that cursive is no longer a technology,
it remains as an art. It’s undead in our society since so many
people want it to persist as a technology. They keep it trapped like a ghost bound in
the classrooms, drifting through the hallways, and hiding beneath the desks. We have to remember that technology comes
and goes. Do you know what Plato said about writing? “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness
in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is
written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means
of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for
memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your
disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching
them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing,
and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden
to their fellows.” And so did it go with the pigeon-carrier,
the telegraph, the typewriter, the cassette. It doesn’t mean that these things are invalid
or useless. No. They stay behind for those who love them for
what they are. For the people in those secretary schools
who loved the art and the expression of cursive, not because it was better than anything else. It didn’t use to be about expression like
it is now. It was about regularity. Standardization. Print and press. There are still some stone-carving courses
in some schools, and many writers prefer the mechanical and tactile typewriter for their
work over the digital keyboard. Does it mean that these things should be mandatory? No. Does it mean that these things aren’t important? Absolutely not. Cursive is now something gorgeous that’s
worshipped on social media platforms as a high art. You can easily find thousands of videos of
people doing beautiful calligraphy, and audiences flock to these. It’s transformed into something beautiful
and expressive precisely because it’s no longer a technology. In fact, the main problem of losing cursive
as a technology is that it’s happening too fast. One of the main arguments that cursive pundits
make is that our national documents are in cursive, so it’s vital that we teach students
cursive so they can read them. Couple problems with this of course being
that few people in education think that reading originals of 300 year old documents that have
already been transcripted into print a thousand times is useful, and that many of those original
documents, including the Declaration of Independence, were printed on Dunlap Broadsides around town
for the common civilian to read. Regardless, there is a legitimate issue. The problem is, is that the National Archives
are sitting on about 15 billion pieces of paper, and 12 billion of those are written
in cursive that very few know how to read anymore. You could hand four sheets of cursive script
to every person in the United States, and there would still be some left to spare. The archives are enlisting an army of civilian
translators to type out these documents, but it’s a monumental project. The problem really is memory. We aren’t just losing a medium like the
stone tablet, we’re losing a language, a way of reading. I keep a journal on me at all times. I write things I want to remember, or ideas
I have for new stories. I pulled out a very old little book I filled
out two years ago. It’s barely bigger than my palm. The paper has gotten thin and soft, like feathers. Two small drops of water have stretched the
ink into streaks and stained the paper yellow. And it’s full. It’s bursting with schedules and lists of
tasks I wanted to finish. A nugget of an idea for another novel. Inspirations written to some future self that
never read or believed in them. Notes on getting soundbites for Fruity Loops
Studio that a friend of mine inherited from a free account that’s been passed around
between five people. “Stop melting the moon.” I’m not sure what that means. “18th century park reservations.” Scraps of poetry and imagery—“Clouds like
a grenade going off underwater, or a bullet through gel.” “The Hawait have 5 genders” (Laughter)
“Sir Pumpkinhead Vegecranium, butler and servant only to himself and honor.” I really don’t know where these come from,
but when I look back on these, I remember things. I can see how some pages are just two words
and that’s it because I woke up in the middle of the night to write an idea I had gotten
from a dream and I couldn’t see what I was writing. I remember walking around the halls of Vikingsholm
at Lake Tahoe and taking furious notes on the specific colors of the servant’s quarters
and how the maids had to stay single to keep serving their mistress. Is it useful? Probably not. I never looked back on those notes until work
on this episode began. Does it have to be? No. Banksy’s painting, “Devolved Parliament,”
shows chimps in the place of legislators. On October 3rd, 2019, it sold for 12 million
dollars. A baseball with a pristine signature from
Babe Ruth sold for 338 thousand dollars, and George Washington’s signed Acts of Congress
is priced at 9.8 million dollars. You see where I’m going with this. Signatures and cursive are personal authenticity. That’s the main benefit and somewhat of
a side effect from cursive. It’s the art part of the technology, and
that will never go away. Just like you can recognize the music of your
favorite artist, or the brush strokes of a Van Gogh, so too can you recognize someone’s
signature as their own, even if you can’t read the doctor’s prescription. They say in the movies, or at least the ones
I’ve watched, that the best way to get rid of a ghost is to free it of its attachments. To appease its last regrets or let it seek
its final revenge. And I’ve been holding on to cursive for
a long time. Thinking about it whenever I have to write
a sign for an event or sign my name on a receipt. I curse my teachers for not giving it more
time, I curse it for not miraculously manifesting into my hands when I need it to. But I see, now, that it’s okay. Your handwriting is your own. Your typing is your own. If the use of cursive was to remember, well,
we have ways to do that that suit the modern world now. And in five years, I wonder if I’ll be able
to look back on this podcast and remember who I was while I was making it. There are plenty of ways to make something
personally authentic. It can be style, it can be art, it can be
voice. It can be a slightly more genuine birthday
wish on Facebook. And some day, I might go back to it. Because although it may not be usable now,
it can still be beautiful. And there’s nothing quite like… (Pen sounds.) Thank you for listening. This podcast was made possible by the UNR
library. Thank you for all the work you do, and letting
us students haunt those bookshelves at any time of day. I’ll see you next time.

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