The Misguided Battle Between Cursive and Writing Produced on a Smartphone

Smith Corona

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, I closed with, “Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America? Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.”

Thinking about students writing in cursive and also using their portable electronic devices to type text, I wonder why there are still distinctive camps, as if Lee and Sherman were going at it, when it comes to how writing must be practiced and made visual. Parents and educators often are unwilling to accept that a victory is the imminent end result for all, if we allow cursive writing and writing of text produced on smartphones to co-exist in the classroom.

Why is it not acceptable to some that Johnny or Jane writes an essay in class on the smartphone? Why would some sneer when Johnny or Jane is unable to write an essay in class using cursive?

If the essays are well-written, will our civilization really die if cursive is no longer part of the student’s arsenal of skills? Does the use of the smartphone and typing really take away from the act of thinking as it occurs when using a pen? Is there not thinking going on while typing? As I wrote in my piece, if we are honest with ourselves, how many of us do really write out articles in longhand first? And would it really make any difference if we did, other than some of us not being able to decipher what we wrote a few minutes ago?

Why are we arguing about the use of tools? An essay written on a typewriter is the same essay as one written on a computer. An essay written by hand is the same essay written on a computer and on a typewriter. And so on, in whatever combination you wish to devise.

I remember the “good old days” when I was an undergraduate in college and many students did not have typing skills. Many of us had brought with us our portable Smith-Corona typewriters, but few of us could really handle the machine expertly. Some of the students were excellent typists and they made good money typing up essays written in cursive, so we would be able to present the essays that absolutely had to be typed to our professors. Having a typed essay presented a challenge akin to what today being able to produce an essay in cursive represents. But back then the requirement of presenting a typed essay presented an evolutionary step toward a more user-friendly consumption of the written word.  Today’s insistence on cursive I begin to suspect is some illusion of attaining class privilege.

An illogical battle is raging among educators and, I would say, among parents even more so. To pose another question that relates to this battle, do some parents of lower socio-economic status insist that their child should learn cursive so that he or she is getting more and truly educated supposedly by possessing this skill? Do the parents of Hunter and Tiffany want their daughter to learn cursive so that she can write thank you notes this way for the wedding gifts? Will Hunter seem more sophisticated when he encloses a thank you note in cursive for the box of cigars received from his investment broker boss? Is the cursive vs. typing battle really a gross distortion of “education”?

I am reminded of Jane Goodall and the spectacular footage which documented for the first time that chimpanzees used tools. Rather than just using hands to retrieve termites and feast on this delicious snack, we saw a chimpanzee use a stick to scoop up termites.

It is time we all accept that scooping with the tool that works the best does not mean a downfall of western civilization. Some of course would say that has already occurred, and if that is the case, there is little to worry about, or more to worry about than whether cursive writing is part of the demand performance of students in the classroom. I hope the students continue to exercise their thumbs and type, and I am proud of students turning in papers that are typed, as I no longer hear what I heard decades ago, a kind of muffled cry for help, oh why does that paper have to be typed?


7 thoughts on “The Misguided Battle Between Cursive and Writing Produced on a Smartphone

  1. I mean, I write all the time on my smartphone, but I also see evidence that students learn more writing stuff out. I don’t care if an essay is written this way, but apparently it’s one less tool for learning. That (albeit, thin) research matches my experience. I don’t care how students take notes, but the doodlers retain more. Wish I doodled.

  2. If we are going to force cursive on children, could we at least give them a better hand than the Palmer method that I was taught or the Handwriting-without-tears method now being taught (which is even uglier than Palmer method)?

    Quite frankly, I never want to get a handwritten document from a student (other than a lab notebook, which should probably be done in something more readable than cursive).

    I want their reports to have been properly spell-checked and copy edited, and I really don’t want to see the first drafts. I think that both cursive writing and 2-thumb typing are fine for short social notes, but neither is particularly suitable for the final or penultimate drafts of academic writing, which is what I want to see from students.

  3. The reason why the discussion is important is because the act of handwriting has an effect on the young brain. While it may be less important in older kids and adults, children get many benefits from learning to write. Please see a list of 50 reasons why it cursive training needs to stay: Technology is, of course, important, too.

  4. “Does the use of the smartphone and typing really take away from the act of thinking as it occurs when using a pen?”
    According to a most recent study it does. Although one might argue that not enough students were involved, those who took notes in a lecture by hand retained more information than those who typed.

    Is there not thinking going on while typing? Of course, but it uses different brain wiring.

    Each tool has its purpose.

  5. Is it still required to write a short statement in cursive for the SAT and GRE? (Weirdly I’m pretty sure I remember doing this for the GRE, although I took the actual test on a computer.) Those are the only times I used cursive after one 7th-grade teacher who required cursive for some things. But by the time I was writing real essays (middle school or high school), almost everything was on a computer. I don’t think cursive is so much a class issue as a generational issue.

    @Nan, IIRC students retained more when writing than typing on a computer, because you can type faster than you can write. So with hand notes you have to be selective, and write key ideas (requiring some information processing) instead of verbatim transcription. Maybe some people can write on their phones as fast as a good typist, but I’d want to see evidence of that. The few meetings where I’ve taken notes on my phone it was problematic because it took so long to write that I missed out on some of what was said, but I’m not quite Generation Text.

    • @CH, The SAT still requires a hand-written essay (though there are accommodations available for those with documented disabilities), but the essay does not require cursive. Separated letters are fine, and modern writing instruments don’t require continuous contact with the paper, so there is no reason to teach cursive just for the SAT.

      I think that calligraphy should be taught in art classes, but that cursive is indeed a class and generation marker, not a particularly essential skill.

  6. Pingback: “The Misguided Battle Between Cursive and Writing Produced on a Smartphone” – The Academe Blog | godlessgreg

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