It was close to the end of the period and there were some notes that I wanted to quickly put on the whiteboard. I grabbed my marker and began to write in cursive, “Canada’s population…” I was just getting started when a boy at the back called out, “I can’t read joined letters.” I was floored. I knew we were no longer teaching cursive in elementary schools, but this was the first time I realized the full scale of the loss.
I’ve been thinking about handwriting a lot these days as I sort through paperwork and personal items that belonged to my mother and father and grandmother. Their handwriting says more about each of them than any portrait possibly could. My father’s handwriting is large and flowing and my mother’s much more measured and cautious. I feel their presence as if they were sitting beside me when I see snippets of things they have written. It’s as distinctive and personal as any work of art. Which begs the question, what will we have lost when handwriting becomes extinct?
Back in my day, cursive was taught in grade three and by grade four we had graduated to our first fountain pens. It took some practice to learn how much pressure to apply and how to stop dragging our hands through the freshly written letters. We all had ink stained fingers and sides of the palms in those days.
I remember realizing early on that even though we had all been taught the same way, handwriting morphed into something unique for each person. In the interest of experimentation, I tried out large letters, small letters, different slants, and the full range of coloured inks – all to explore who I was and who I wanted to become.
A few years after these experiments with my fountain pen, the Bic Cristal made its appearance. It was cheaper, handier, and certainly less messy than a fountain pen, but it wasn’t the same writing experience. Which brings me to this article I recently read in The Atlantic titled, “How the Ballpoint Killed Cursive.” Many people will tell you that computers spelled the end to cursive, but the author of this article, Josh Giesbrecht, thinks it might have started well before that with the emerging popularity of the Bic pen in the 1960’s. The ink in the Bic was made much thicker to prevent leakage and the long nib of the fountain pen was replaced by a rolling ball. The fountain pen with its thinner ink dances across the page while the Bic needs to be coaxed and pushed across. Giesbrecht puts it this way, “Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write.”
Handwriting expert, Rosemary Sassoon, makes some really interesting observations about the experience of writing. She explains that children today are still being taught the same pen grip that’s been used for generations. She points out that ballpoints and other modern pens need to be held at a more upright angle to the paper and this position is uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold. It seems the ballpoint was straining our hands long before keyboards and carpal tunnel syndrome made their appearance. She writes:
We must find ways of holding modern pens that will enable us to write without pain. …We also need to encourage efficient letters suited to modern pens. Unless we begin to do something sensible about both letters and penholds we will contribute more to the demise of handwriting than the coming of the computer has done.
There seems to be a general consensus that joined letters are faster to write than separate ones. And new studies suggest that writing by hand may be better for kids’ learning than using a computer. So where does this leave us? Our modern tools don’t seem to support writing in traditional ways. It’ll be very interesting to see how this all unfolds.
For my part, I’ve decided to take a step backwards and learn calligraphy. Surely there’s still a place for the art of beautiful handwriting in this world.
You can read the full article in The Atlantic here.