TOPICS > Education > Extinction Week

Is cursive handwriting slowly dying out in America?

BY April Brown  April 24, 2014 at 10:59 AM EDT
A draft of the Declaration of Independence as prepared by Thomas Jefferson's, with notes from Benjamin Franklin. Image from the Library of Congress

A draft of the Declaration of Independence as prepared by Thomas Jefferson’s, features notes from Benjamin Franklin. The official version, which is on display in the National Archives, was handwritten by Timothy Matlack. Image from the Library of Congress

For centuries, the educated, wealthy and refined could be distinguished by their ability to put quill to parchment, vellum or paper and create beautiful, flowing letters. The delicately formed cursive letters of the America’s Declaration of Independence, as faded the current copy on exhibit at the National Archives may be, helped form a nation.

Extinction Week logoFounding Father Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and renaissance man, gets implied credit for writing those words 237 years ago.

But the cursive handwriting on the document detailing the need to “dissolve the political bands” is not his.

“Jefferson is the one who developed many of the words, the really resounding words that we all love,” said Kitty Nicholson, the recently retired Deputy Director of the Conservation Labs at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “Timothy Matlack is the man who engrossed it, wrote it out on parchment in a beautiful way with engrossed letters at the top and that was signed by the representatives.”

Matlack, according to Nicholson, was a professional scribe, the type of man who would use a practiced hand to pen important papers before printing presses were invented or readily available.

“They were professional clerks known for writing beautifully, clearly in a way that anyone could read so they took the place of a formally printed document,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson admires the penmanship of the scribes who wrote the many important national documents she has helped preserve, including the Declaration of Independence.

“If you’ve seen the elegant writing from the 18th century, elegant writing of many of the great significant documents in the National Archives and other places, to lose that elegance, that sense of elegance, it feels like losing a bit of civilization.”

That sense of elegance is seldom seen in daily handwriting. In fact, the handwriting tradition of cursive, taught in classrooms around the country for decades, has seen something of a slow demise in recent years. To be fair, it’s not quite nearing extinction level, but some might argue it is increasingly endangered.

With young thumbs furiously pounding out abbreviated words and internet slang while texting and with fingers flying across keyboards writing emails, reports and, yes, even news articles, the act of taking a pen and carefully crafting notes and letters is occurring less frequently in the modern world.

Many elementary schools across the United States have dropped cursive instruction altogether as increased testing, the implementation of Common Core State Standards and computers in the classroom take more time and resources. (The NewsHour will be airing a report on this soon)

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia use the Common Core’s English Language Arts standards. But a few states (California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee among them) have recently moved to make cursive mandatory.

North Carolina passed a “Back to Basics” law last year which mandated cursive (and multiplication tables) be taught.

Children in Cindy Hutchins’ second grade class at Estes Elementary School in suburban Asheville, North Carolina, have just begun learning their cursive letters. They first spent two years learning the D’Nealian manuscript alphabet, which is slanted and supposed to ease the transition. And even in the age of emails, typing and texting, some of the students at Estes Elementary still see potential practical applications for cursive handwriting.

“Maybe we won’t have electricity anymore and it might be a blackout so we have to write letters to each other,” said Jacob Fender, 8, after practicing at his desk in Ms. Hutchins’ class.

“You don’t always have your device wherever you go,” said Sammi Hascher, 9, who has started to use cursive writing in her third grade lessons. “If you want to write a fancy party invitation or something you can write in cursive.”

The cursive Hascher and her classmates are learning has played a crucial role in something most literate people tie to their identity — their signature or “John Hancock” (which can still be made out on the faded Declaration of Independence on view at the National Archives.)

“One of the bank managers recently I spoke with said there is an appalling number of high school students transitioning to college (and) they come in to open a bank account and they don’t have a signature,” said Marilyn Zecher, a former teacher and certified academic language therapist who uses cursive to help students dealing with learning difficulties including dyslexia. “That’s a problem.”

Not everyone sees losing cursive from the elementary school curriculum as a critical problem, including Steve Graham, a Professor of Education at Arizona State University who has studied handwriting extensively.

“You can write your name out in manuscript, that’s fine, it doesn’t have to be a signature,” Graham said. “We now have electronic signatures. We don’t use the signature in the same way that we did 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago. This really isn’t an impediment in terms of thinking about putting your (John Hancock) on something.”

There are still devotees who slowly and methodically create beautiful characters, such as those found in the document John Hancock is well-known for having signed. Christine Carneal spends a few hours each week learning calligraphy, highly decorative handwriting, in Washington D.C. in a class offered by Smithsonian Associates, the educational outreach arm of the national museum and research complex.

“I’ve always been interested in letters since I was a small child,” Carneal said. “I used to come up with new ways to draw letters that I learned in school. I would draw them as bubble letters or as block letters and it has turned into me being a graphic designer.”

Shane Perry is Carneal’s instructor who has spent many years learning, perfecting and later teaching how to write beautifully.

“I have a passion for the art form and I’ve always thought that calligraphy is a bona fied art form just like any other art form: drawing, painting, sculpture, but with an added element, and that is you can be very deliberate in what is that you want to say,” Perry said. “You can make it as clear or as opaque as you want but it’s also a tradition that’s begun since almost the beginning of human civilization.”