Let’s Talk About Cursive

Here is a quick test to begin. Can you read the document below?


Source: University of Toronto Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Unless you have been well-trained in paleography, I assume its contents, aside from a few words here and there, were totally indecipherable. It may surprise you to know that this is in fact written in English in a form of writing called secretary hand. Secretary hand was used for official documents for much of the early modern period and survived in some cases up until the late-nineteenth century. This little annecdote illustrates quite clearly the absurdity of our continued obsession with cursive writing.

As the above sample amply demonstrates, cursive writing was created for speed, not accuracy. In fact, the proponderance of block letters in latin and vernacular language in many public notices from the classical and medieval period highlights this fact quite clearly. Finally, cursive is generally considered the product of adapting writing technologies like the quill and the calligraphy pen to the need to record information. If you have ever used these items, you would know that pen lifts create huge messes unless done with great care. Indeed, part of the reason Gutenberg’s press uses moveable block letters instead of cursive letter forms is precisely for the reason of accuracy. Cursive is in no way superior to block letter printing in any material sense or technical sense. In fact, given our technological surroundings and the need for widespread literacy it is an archaic writing form just like secretary hand.

So why are some educators and parents still so obsessed with children mastering it?

As with many things, the answer is a matter of social class, rather than social, or cultural necessity. As more and more documents were typed, or printed using block letters, cursive became the mark of distinction for the wealthy classes. While technical schools taught block printing because it was easier to read and more accurate, collegiate institutes and grammar schools continued to focus on cursive. Cursvie then is, and has been for some time, little more than an affect of class distinction. In the present material and technological reality, it is a poorly masked attempt to obfuscate meaning by those intent on projecting an image of themselves as the social betters of others. Cursive has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of your ideas.

All of this is to say, if you and your pen pal want to swap letters in your secret code of flowing handwriting, or take notes in cursive because it is faster for you, that is fine. However, do not mistake your preference for marks of class distinction as evidence of cursives superiority. It is a lovely skill to have, I suppose, but far from necessary, or relevant. That is, unless by some chance you happen to be a professional historian like me. In which case, it is a frequent occupational hazard.

As teachers we have enough important content to cover. Gestures oriented towards the vanity of certain social classes should never be a core educational component. After all, We havent been in the business of producing little ladies and lordlings for quite some time. 

© Braden Hutchinson 2014