Recursive Loop

NPR’s Kyle Gassiott reported on Friday, August 26, that Alabama recently joined several other states in requiring that students learn cursive writing in public schools.

Here we go again: non-educators interjecting their institutionalized pedagogical conservatism to education where it patently does not belong.

My fellow Seditionist, Dr. L. Robert Furman, and I have railed about this at conferences, keynotes, and on our video channel. I’m glad to see Dr. Thornton point out the fact I constantly come back to in these discussions: cursive writing, like so many other aspects of the traditional school experience, is an artifact of social conservatism imposed upon schools.

Cursive writing is, and ought to be, a thing of the past. If I started suggesting we should all learn how to scribe a clay tablet, or make papyrus, or cut quills, or write Cuneiform “so that the next generation won’t lose access to these important forms of communication” or “so that the next generation will be able to understand and experience literature and historic texts” or “so that the next generation will be able to sign their names,” everyone would rightly brand me bonkers.

But you start talking about a person’s childhood school experiences, and you’ve crossed from my craft and my profession of pedagogy, curricular design, child development, and education policy, and now you’re screwing with a person’s memories and feelings. I understand the nostalgia. I still have my first stuffed animal – his name is Cuddles, by the way – and I’d never give him up to anyone, for anything. I understand driving by your childhood home and pining for a memory even if that house doesn’t represent your best years. I remember the halls of my second elementary school with fondness even though I suffered through miserable teacher experiences many of the years I was there. There’s power in recollection and the mentality of the conservative doesn’t escape me.

But none of that has a place in crafting meaningful policy based on emergent research. None of that has a place in understanding what our children need to fulfill their potential in the future we empower them to craft and in which they will choose how to communicate.

Taken to its logical conclusion, attitudes like “cursive is critical” would have us all writing with quills, no matter how inefficient that was as compared to even a now-antiquated ball-point.

The same logic applies to what I consider the absurdist educational technology position that “touch typing” is a skill we need to explicitly teach in schools. These are all obsessions with method instead of outcome. I write about this in my first book on education, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, in contrasting intent versus outcome. I may intend to teach a child to type, but if I only obsess over the method of touch typing and only ever correct finger placement and hand position, I miss the possibility that the student can achieve the goal – typing effectively and efficiently with high accuracy, low error incidence, and maximum speed – by using a method that differs from that being instructed.

Moreoever, let’s take a cue from the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program, and address one of my favorite topics, authenticity: The goal of quick, accurate typing isn’t typing. The goal is to eradicate barriers between emergent thought and internal concept, and the outside world. The faster and more effectively I can get information from my brain into digital language, the more I can do with both.

By the way, asking me to teach a child to use any particular style of handwriting format while I’m trying desperately to teach that child how to write and how to live and think as a writer, is a massive curricular overhead that saddles me instead of empowers me, as a teacher… and let’s not even get into the absurdity of asking a digital native kid to deal with that while learning the vastly more important skill of writing. If you conflate penmanship and writing, you’re proving my point that education is best left to the professionals.

Be nostalgic. Just be nostalgic over there. We’re busy learning over here.

If touch typing or a specific method of data entry or a particular form of writing – in this case, cursive – requires a significant investment of time and energy to learn and does not achieve a goal in an authentic context like “getting information down quickly so you don’t lose great thoughts,” it’s really missing the mark. Consequently, insisting that all students learn cursive presupposes their modality and skill, and if we’ve learned anything as professional educators, it’s that we ought not conflate one child with another or with some generic “thought” of children in general. Every kid deserves individual attention. If we accept that as a maxim, and I can demonstrate – which I’m happy to do, any time – that cursive writing is a barrier to my fluency, expression, communication, and language, then we must logically assume that cursive isn’t the best thing for every kid.

Let’s stop wasting time on nonsense for the sake of adult nostalgia. Go watch a Bogart film in your Ford Fairlane at the drive-in and leave teaching children to the professional educators. In the immortal words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Dr. Thornton, in the NPR report, said “Unbelievably, there were arguments that the fact that American kids couldn’t do cursive made us vulnerable to the Russian menace.” That’s not unbelievable to me. I absolutely believe that knuckleheads who think public school policy is a vehicle for their personal ax-grinding and lamentation about the bygone would conflate their fear of a changing world and discomfort with sociopolitical phenomena with what’s best for kids.

It happens all the time, and we radical pedagogues and revolutionaries have no patience whatsoever for interjection of such distraction and lay-opinion into policycraft.

If you want to write cursive, knock yourself out. I can still write my books, write this very blog post, communicate effectively, and make a real difference in my world in preventing the rise of infiltrating, inappropriate nostalgia without an outdated skill.

I’ll sign my name to that, and no, it isn’t a cursive signature.


As always, my opinions are my own and are in no way representative of any organization or entity, public or private.