Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Dodo, the passenger pigeon, and Palmer penmanship

There's been a fair amount of online chatter, some of it quite nasty, about Rachel Jeantel's recent testimony in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. Ms. Jeantel admitted on the witness stand that she cannot read cursive writing. This has caused quite a few people to mock her as illiterate. Well, it's pretty obvious she's not alone.

The S.O. and I were down in Eagle River, Wisconsin, yesterday to help the now 12-year-old grandson celebrate his birthday. A fair number of his friends were there, too. Coincidentally, his mother has been going through  the kids' books in the house, some of which were purchased for Logan fairly recently and some for his older brother back in the '90s. One of the books I noticed was The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle -- it's a book written from the perspective of a Lakota youth who ends up being shipped off to the Carlisle Indian School in the late 19th century. It's a gorgeous book, beautifully printed, and tells an interesting and heart-wrenching story. It received a Christopher Award in 1995. And here's the thing: it's printed in cursive.

It's absolutely perfect cursive, but it's cursive nonetheless. Seeing the cursive printing in the book led to us talking about Ms. Jeantel and her admission that she couldn't read cursive. So we started wondering just how common that was. We called Logan and his cronies over. The kids ranged in age from 12 to 14. Two of them admitted outright they couldn't read it, a couple could make out words if they worked at it, and one could read it fairly easily. She stumbled a few times, but she could read it. These kids are in middle school, heading into 7th and 8th grades, and they were stumbling over a book written for kids in grades 4-6.

This led to Logan's mother (aka our Oldest Daughter) mentioning that back when she worked in a restaurant a few years ago, they had trouble with some of the high school students who worked busing tables or as waitresses. If a label or an order ticket wasn't in block printing, they couldn't read it. One girl kept screwing up orders and finally admitted she couldn't read the labels on the salad dressing bottles because they were in cursive script. This solved another mystery for me: why the graphics on commercial products more and more look like they're being marketed to 6-year-olds. 

You know, I can understand not teaching penmanship in school anymore, but not teaching kids how to read cursive? That's bizarre. In a few years the government won't have to classify anything as Secret; all they'll have to do is print everything in Edwardian script.


  1. This is something I never considered. As an educator in the Native villages of Alaska all my kids had laptops. Any writing they did (except test) were done on computers. We did teach cursive, but there is actually very little use for it.

    This is a view into the future where children will be only twitter literate, books will be digital and cursive will be an arcane remnant of the past.

    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. Take a look at the book referenced and you'll see just one thing the technology-dependent kids are going to miss. Don't read cursive? Then you're going to look at the originals of documents like the Declaration of Independence and have to rely on other people to tell you what it says. Goodbye literacy; hello Fox News.

  3. I was taught cursive and do write it but I honestly see little need for it in this age.

    At one time cursive was faster to write but now the world is in the print age and that is fine with me cuz it's generally faster to read.

    I'm pretty damn sure that the youth can find a copy of the Declaration of Independence in block letters.

  4. Since I am old, I can read and write cursive but badly. No one hand writes letters anymore and other than signing my name which I seldom do, or take notes to myself, I never use it. It is not a good skill to lose, you are right, but there must be reasons for people to learn and use it enough to maintain skill levels.

  5. Once again, I'll say it: if the original document is written in cursive and you can't read it, you're relying on someone else's translation. After I did this post, the S.O. and I were talking, and we started to wonder just how much of the ignorance displayed by the Tea Party crowd stems from their inability to actually read the cursive writing in the originals of the documents they're so fond of misquoting.

    And here's a purely practical reason for teaching penmanship to the little barracudas: it improves eye-hand coordination.

  6. it improves eye-hand coordination.

    So does a pinball machine, hahaha

  7. And when was the last time you saw a pinball machine? They're becoming as rare as elementary schools that teach cursive.

    Besides, a 6-year-old is a little short to reach the controls. Even standing on a stool, the kid would have trouble with the flippers.

  8. There is a pinball machine on my computer. The world will do what it does and I don't care if they write in cursive or not, we're just old fuddy duddies to the young.

  9. Virtual pinball games don't count. Manipulating a video game controller is a whole different skill set than playing a game on an actual pinball machine.

  10. Wow - I had no idea it was coming to this...secret code right out in the open.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.