The ABCs of Historical Documents

Think back to your elementary school days…what was your least favorite subject? For some of us, the most hated lesson of all was cursive. Years later, we can still recall the agony of copying text over and over again, a seemingly pointless task. How many of us actually write in cursive today?

Last week, the New York Times published an article about the value of teaching cursive in the 21st century classroom. In the age of computers, penmanship seems to be going the way of calligraphy. Educating students in math, science, and language captures top priority in a system defined by test results. Can we make a legitimate case for the survival of cursive? 

Katie Zezima, the author of “The Case for Cursive,” offers several arguments. First, that printing in block letters increases the risk of forgery; a less unique writing style may be easier to copy. She also cites an occupational therapist who says that cursive teaches fine motor skills which students do not develop as they print. Others simply pine for the loss of beauty in handwriting. Finally, Zezima recalls the case of a young woman whose grandmother has recently passed away. The woman and her cousin find their grandmother’s journal, but are unable to decipher it. They describe it as “cryptic,” confessing that they neither read nor write in cursive.

Full disclosure here:  I still write in cursive, mostly out of habit. I suppose it was so drilled into me that I never gave it up. In my work as an archivist, I spend most of my day reading 200-year-old documents and I find this knowledge helpful. So this story gave me pause.  What is the fate of these collections in the hands of future generations? Will they have the skills to decipher them?

Communication is constantly evolving, and I suspect that even if cursive is no longer taught in the classroom, the skill of reading it will not entirely disappear. Perhaps specialists will be needed to transcribe them. After all, even scrimshaw has a small but devoted following! This topic is part of the larger conversation about the value of our cultural heritage. Making the content of this “stuff” relevant today will foster a feeling of ownership and a desire to know more. What do you think: how will the loss of cursive affect the way we interact with the artifacts of the past?


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