Vox et praeterea nihil

Proving Plutarch Prescient

Monthly Archives: September 2013

Earning the right to be stupid

I have recently and far too belatedly been introduced to the thoughts and writing of Paul Valéry. I’m not sure I share everything about his outlook, but he is a highly intriguing figure and I now intend to read some of his work. I’m not prone to (re)circulating pithy quotations, but it was through a couple of his that I stumbled across his life and work, so with your kind indulgence, I will share them here.

The first is, “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”

The other is more true to what I keep thinking and hoping this blog is designed and intended to be–something of a personal intellectual diary. Valéry maintained one, known as Les Cahiers (The Notebooks). He faithfully contributed something to this endeavor every morning, about which he wrote, “Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.” Amen to that!

Cursive is an Obsolete Platform

The “Great Cursive Debate” just won’t go away. Just search “cursive debate“, and you’ll find plenty of articles.  It was a topic on the September 2, 2013 edition of the CBC Radio 1 current affairs program The Current.

For what they’re worth, these are my thoughts on the subject. I’m one of those people who “can’t” write in cursive. Or perhaps I should say I’m a person who prefers not to use it–or, increasingly, ANY form of “writing”.

I’m in my 50s, and I certainly learned cursive way back when in the 1960s. Actually, I first learned “European” (Germanic) cursive. My dad was an academic, and we lived in Switzerland the year I was in Grade 1. I learned cursive there, with a good old-fashioned fountain pen (not even a cartridge pen!). I still have some notebooks from back then, and my European/German cursive was quite nice.

But when we came back to Canada, the teachers of the day decided that my European handwriting was “wrong”. They forced me to “unlearn” it and learn “proper” North American handwriting–Palmer or Zaner-Bloser. The result was that my cursive became an essentially illegible scrawl. (And the point is that cursive–at least back then–was not thought of us a means of acquiring fine motor skills or creative self-expression. It was highly ritualized, codified, and orthodox. One was “judged”, to a certain degree, on one’s “penmanship“.)

By high school in the 70s, I had figured out that block lettering worked far better for me. I could read my own notes, and teachers could read my essays and test answers. I’ve stuck with block lettering for everything that has to be “written” ever since. I can sign my name in cursive for official documents, but that’s pretty much the full extent of my use of cursive these days. Even my use of block lettering–putting ANYTHING on paper–is rapidly waning.

I rarely take notes in meetings or any other situation in which note-taking is required by hand any more. I typically use one of my (portable) electronic devices for that. More often than not, I use a “Swype” enabled keyboard, and a note-taking app like Evernote. It’s fast, easy, and makes my notes searchable and available across all my devices (phone, tablet, notebook, desktop, whatever). Best of all, I don’t have to worry about losing a scrap of paper with an important (and perhaps illegible) note on it!

I also have two sons who are in Grades 6 and 4. They go to a charter school here in Calgary, which equips each student with an iPad. They do virtually all of their school work with it. They have little or no “need” to put anything on paper–be it in cursive or block lettering. They also have art, music, and drama classes, so they’re learning motor skills–both gross and fine–as well as creative self-expression through channels other than learning cursive. That being the case, and given the technologies they will be able to use when they grow up, I fail to see the necessity or benefit of putting time and energy into teaching or learning cursive.

Like it or not, cursive is dying. It may still continue to exist as a “decorative or expressive art” (as calligraphy already does), but it’s pretty much dead already as a basic or necessary form or medium for communication or record-keeping. To use a technological metaphor, it’s a dead or dying “platform”. Chisel and stone, clay or wax tablet and stylus, papyrus and reed, vellum and brush, parchment and quill, slate and chalk, fountain or cartridge pen and linen paper, Bic ballpoint and Hilroy (or Campfire) notebook–all “platforms” that have come and gone in the history of writing. Add cursive and any surface upon which to write it to the list of dead platforms.

I, for one, say good riddance to cursive. I say so as someone whose “penmanship” long made me “the most illegible bachelor in town” (with apologies to Billy Bragg). It is, simply put, obsolete. Any argument in favour of cursive is purely romantic or nostalgic. It no longer serves any essential function or need, and as such, there is no utility or benefit to continuing to teach it in school. Let’s put our time and energy into teaching our kids more important things–like critical thinking, financial literacy, and digital literacy and citizenship–not a dying skill with no use in the modern world.

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