Don't Turn Out Lights on Cursive Writing - by Quin Hillyer - July 13, 2011

New technology can carry a flip side that policy-makers should beware. By abjuring time-honored methods and practices, and the values that inhere therein, policy-makers serve society very badly.

These concerns emerge from two seemingly disparate stories in the news last week, both of them examples of public officials who are techno-wise but profoundly foolish. The first involves the pending federal ban on sales of old-style, incandescent, Edison light bulbs. The second is the decision of Indiana state education officials to join other misguided states in no longer requiring school children to be taught cursive handwriting, in favor of mandatory teaching of keyboard skills.

The first story primarily involves a diminution of freedom (although other values also are at stake). The second involves a diminution of civilizing standards - and also a possible diminution of brain capacity.

By now most people know that under a 2007 law, Edison bulbs effectively will be outlawed at year's end, in favor of the new, supposedly more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs (or yet another option, Light-Emitting Diodes, known as LEDs). Plenty of think-tank reports and newspaper columns have detailed the drawbacks to the newfangled light sources, ranging from dimmer light to higher initial expense and, especially, to the danger of mercury poisoning. Worst of all, though, is the freedom-limiting nature of this government-knows-best mandate.

"We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money," bragged Energy Secretary Steven Chu to the Wall Street Journal, apparently oblivious to how obnoxious his position sounds. Since when was it government's business to tell Americans what constitutes a "waste" of their own money, much less forbid them to waste it?

There also are moral and pedagogical concerns at play. Eliminating the incandescent bulb also reduces the opportunities to teach about Thomas Edison - about his creativity, his hard work and, not least, about how the inventor had to demonstrate the value of his products in the fire of market competition, thus earning his success rather than being granted it by government fiat.

The drawbacks to the eradication of cursive writing may not be so obvious, but they're very real. First, it should be understood just how endangered is the practice of "writing in script." Indiana's move came on the heels of Georgia dropping cursive from its requirements in January - and, more broadly, is part of a lamentable national effort called the Common Core standards in which governors of 46 states are trying to universalize the nation's educational expectations. Keyboarding is part of those standards; cursive isn't. Already, some colleges report that a majority of their incoming freshman doesn't even know how to write script lettering, and 85 percent of students who take the SAT test print the letters of the exam's essay portion - although printing is more laborious.

Both scientific and cultural considerations make this an unhealthy trend. As for the science: A number of studies, uncontradicted, show that the practice of combining the physical act of writing interconnected letters with the mental workout of finding just the right word actually activates and develops useful parts of the brain that otherwise lie fallow. Common sense alone confirms what one newspaper-letter writer explained: "The letters have to flow and connect to create the meaning of the word as a whole. The flow from left to right also encourages a young reader in the progress of the greater understanding of a word's or sentence's meaning."

Meanwhile, cursive is culturally significant. As novelist Robert Stone told the publication "The Week": "On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn't be rushed - you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity." Also, there is the practical consideration of the role cursive plays in official public documents. The unique, identifying value of the personal signature is an essential part of contracts and other transactions that can't be duplicated electronically. Especially as computer hackers become increasingly adept at their evil arts, the cursive signature should be more, not less, of a necessary safeguard against fraud.

The individuality of an old-fashioned signature serves another, more intangible role. Electronic keyboard communication is homogenizing, tending towards the impersonal, and often less expressive. It also promotes sloppiness. Cursive writing, on the contrary, requires character-building effort to maintain legibility. As described in a marvelous 1951 book called Written By Hand, by Englishman Aubrey West, "While in speech any slovenliness of articulation which the easy of conversation may invite can be at once amended - for your hearer will invite you to repeat more intelligibly what he has not distinctly heard - there is in writing [by hand] no opportunity for correction: so that any real illegibility in writing is a wider breach of good manners than indistinct utterance."

Finally, no email message can fully replace the civilizing and personalizing value of a hand-written note of thanks or condolence. It can even be argued that a culture eschewing such civilizing touches is morally and perhaps spiritually poorer.

A society without cursive is a society dimmer and duller - sort of like the bluish light from a non-Edison, fluorescent bulb.

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