A perennial lament about modern education: kids don't write in script or learn cursive anymore. Must be all that texting!
Here's an article from The Atlantic that argues, indeed, new technology had something to do with the decline of cursive -- but it was technology of a couple of generations ago. It's entitled, "How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive:"
The ink used in a fountain pen, the ballpoint’s predecessor, is thinner to facilitate better flow through the nib—but put that thinner ink inside a ballpoint pen, and you’ll end up with a leaky mess. Ink is where László Bíró, working with his chemist brother György, made the crucial changes: They experimented with thicker, quick-drying inks, starting with the ink used in newsprint presses. Eventually, they refined both the ink and the ball-tip design to create a pen that didn’t leak badly. (This was an era in which a pen could be a huge hit because it only leaked ink sometimes.)
The ballpoint’s universal success has changed how most people experience ink. Its thicker ink was less likely to leak than that of its predecessors. For most purposes, this was a win—no more ink-stained shirts, no need for those stereotypically geeky pocket protectors. However, thicker ink also changes the physical experience of writing, not necessarily all for the better.
I wouldn’t have noticed the difference if it weren’t for my affection for unusual pens, which brought me to my first good fountain pen....Its thin ink immediately leaves a mark on paper with even the slightest, pressure-free touch to the surface. My writing suddenly grew extra lines, appearing between what used to be separate pen strokes. My hand, trained by the ballpoint, expected that lessening the pressure from the pen was enough to stop writing, but I found I had to lift it clear off the paper entirely. Once I started to adjust to this change, however, it felt like a godsend; a less-firm press on the page also meant less strain on my hand.
My fountain pen is a modern one, and probably not a great representation of the typical pens of the 1940s—but it still has some of the troubles that plagued the fountain pens and quills of old. I have to be careful where I rest my hand on the paper, or risk smudging my last still-wet line into an illegible blur. And since the thin ink flows more quickly, I have to refill the pen frequently. The ballpoint solved these problems, giving writers a long-lasting pen and a smudge-free paper for the low cost of some extra hand pressure.
...[M]y own writing morphed from Palmerian script into mostly print shortly after starting college. Like most gradual changes of habit, I can’t recall exactly why this happened, although I remember the change occurred at a time when I regularly had to copy down reams of notes for mathematics and engineering lectures....[I]f joined handwriting is supposed to be faster, why would I switch away from it at a time when I most needed to write quickly?
I loved this article, not least because it describes a wonderful example of how technology changes daily life right under our noses without our even noticing.
Here, the argument is that the older technology -- low-viscosity ink -- caused our "traditional" script to develop ligatures between letters. It was natural, the kind of thing that happened unless you were being especially careful, and so standard scripts, in which the joins proceeded from letter to letter in a repeated, predictable way, made it so we'd all still be able to tell one letter from another. It was possible to print separate letters that did not have trails of ink joining them, but it took extra care and attention -- and took longer.
Viscous ink of the kind used in ball point pens does not make accidental ligatures, any more than it typically bleeds all over a paper -- yes, we've all known a pen to leak in our bag or pocket from time to time, but I'm willing to chalk that up to a defective pen -- do you notice all the pens that don't leak? This state of affairs would be a miracle in the days of fountain pens only. Since it doesn't make accidental ligatures, standardized ligatures are no longer, technically needed.
(Yes -- an individual, today, still needs to be able to recognize them, because many people choose to write in joined script. But now, it's a choice to write in joined script, whereas in the days of fountain pens, it was a necessity.)
Furthermore, modern pens (because they require at least some pressure to roll the ball and make the ink flow) strain your hand, especially if you're pushing instead of pulling the pen, as lefties do. So -- more ligatures means more ink to force out, and that means more strain.
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There's a lesson here to learn (ha) about pedagogy, too.
My second-grade classroom had a big poster on the wall showing the proper way to sit while writing and the proper way to hold a pen, the barrel angled far back and cradled by the right hand -- much less upright than I held it. I have a memory, too, of there being a picture showing how left-handers should write, with the pen-hand a mirror image of the normal writers' hand, and paper turned at an odd angle that wasn't even close to the angle I turned it. I still suspect that no actual left-handed writers were consulted in the creation of the latter picture.
I always thought the difference between how I hold a pen and how they told us to in school came from my being left-handed. It never occurred to me it was because schools were still insisting in the 1980s on a grip that was developed to manage the quirks of fountain pens:
Sassoon’s analysis of how we’re taught to hold pens makes a much stronger case for the role of the ballpoint in the decline of cursive. She explains that the type of pen grip taught in contemporary grade school is the same grip that’s been used for generations, long before everyone wrote with ballpoints.
However, writing with ballpoints and other modern pens requires that they be placed at a greater, more upright angle to the paper—a position that’s generally uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold. Even before computer keyboards turned so many people into carpal-tunnel sufferers, the ballpoint pen was already straining hands and wrists.
...I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility.
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I predict the Atlantic will get a LOT of letters about it, particularly angry handwritten ones.
I have never held a fountain pen -- the experience that gave the author the insight to suggest the real cause of the decline of ligatured handwriting -- but other than that my experience with my own handwriting is similar.
Engineering school forever altered my script. Today it is a mix of block capitals and sometimes-joined lowercase, with the "weird" cursive forms jettisoned in favor of r's that look like r's (and can't, for instance, be mistaken for the Greek letter mu).
Three representative samples of my handwriting. Using a gel rollerball pen, my preferred tool, although I'm also fond of a super-sharp pencil.
Although I taught my kids to read script, I stopped bugging them to write in it when it occurred to me that the point of handwriting is to be legible, rapid, and non-injurious to the hand, in that order. My observation is that flowing script is none of these -- unless you use fountain pens, I guess!
I've moved my homeschool over to teaching Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting, a flexible print that can be joined, not-joined, or sometimes-joined however the student desires.
There's a lot less grumbling about this; it's legible; and we can move on to other things.
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I don't actually have any vitriol towards cursive, and I'm always charmed to receive a piece of real handwriting that's been written with great care. It is a lovely art form that can bring grace to mundane occasions. And I've experienced many times the fleeting sense of encounter that comes from picking up some scrap of household litter and discovering on it a slip of a loved one's writing. If the loved one has been gone a long time, it is almost as if they live again, for the instant it takes your eye and mine to register it.
What I don't like is the suggestion that lack of cursive is Another Thing Wrong With Kids These Days. It would be like shaking your head that I buy bedding for my family instead of laboriously piecing together fabric scraps from their old clothes, because quilts are pretty.
Anyway, reading this essay is definitely going to help me move forward with a casual approach to handwriting -- without guilt. Legible, rapid, and painless. Those are my criteria. If one of the kids wants to, we can study Palmer script or even calligraphy -- in art class.