04. April 2024 · Comments Off on Cursive and Other Archaic Skills · Categories: Ain't That America?

My daughter recently reviewed the various academic programs available at the Hill Country elementary school which Wee Jamie will eventually attend, when she makes her pile in real estate and moves up to that community. Among the skills on offer is training in writing cursive – which we were both pretty thrilled to hear about. (Although I do hold out for home-schooling Wee Jamie.) Apparently, teaching cursive handwriting has been pretty much phased out in elementary school curriculums of late – in favor of either printing or keyboarding… apparently, very few people now hand-write documents. Scrawling a signature is about as far as most people go, these days of computers, cellphones, email and being able to fill out forms on-line.
For myself, I have perfectly awful handwriting; not all the cursive practice in third and fourth grade could remedy this quality a single iota. Frankly, I envy anyone who has excellent flowing Palmer-style handwriting, or the gentleman I met at an art show who could do perfect gothic script lettering – freehand. I have usually resorted to printing, if legibility to another person was a requirement, and there wasn’t a typewriter or computer handy. But I fully support Wee Jamie being taught to write cursive, for the very excellent reason that even if you can’t handwrite legibly – you can still read handwritten documents. Otherwise, whole libraries and archives are closed to someone who simply can’t read such documents.

Some years ago, I made a tidy amount for a local researcher, who in the course of his studies, been able to access the letter archives of a prominent early 19th century inventor/industrialist, preserved in the archives of a major East Coast university. There were pages and pages of PDF scans of personal letters and business correspondence – not just of the industrialist himself, but from his wife and son, in-laws, friends and business associates. The researcher didn’t have time to read and transcribe the whole archive himself, so he hired me to do it … and it was rather fun, as well as remunerative. There was a wide range in quality of the handwriting, too – some of the business letters were as easily read as if they were typewritten; rather obviously, the industrialist hired men who could write with a clear and elegant hand. His mother-in-law, alas, wrote with a scrawl nearly as illegible as my own. His wife had the habit of saving paper by turning the page 45 degrees and writing more lines crossways over what had already been written – which was even more challenging to read when the ink bled through to the other side of what was obviously very thin paper. The industrialists’ father-in-law would have been schooled in the late 18th century, as he routinely used the then-archaic formulation of the letter ‘f’ instead of the rounded ‘s’ in his letters. (This meant confusion in deciphering his letters until I figured it out. I got rather fond of the father-in-law through his letters although he was about 150 years dead by then. He was a decent and kindly old stick, charitable and modest, although his son-in-law was one of the richest men in America at the time.)

Anyway – being able to read original old documents can be a very useful skill, especially for someone with an interest in history and culture. I have read that in countries like Japan, there have been so many simplifications and variations of the alphabet in use over the recent decades that many ancient documents can only be read by specialist scholars. It would be a pity if the same happened here in the US. Perhaps the urge to move away from teaching cursive is a deliberate ploy; a means to sever younger generations from our founding documents and our history.

Anyway, I got to think about skills that are commonly seen as outdated, outmoded, superseded by new technologies … but maybe, just maybe … really aren’t. The ability to drive a stick shift automobile or truck. Morse code. Celestial navigation. Editing audio tape with a razor blade and specialty sticky-tape. Hand sewing – didn’t Doctor Kennedy mention once that the skills of doctors doing sutures had fallen off because so few people did hand sewing any more? Discuss as you wish; what other seemingly-outdated skills are still useful or may become useful again in our lamentably chaotic world?

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