Keyboarding Killed the Handwriting Star

Nancy Cartwright, best known as the voice of television icon Bart Simpson, once said, “Cursive writing does not mean what I think it does.” She was making a joke about swearing, of course, but unlike swearing–which never seems to go out of style, even if our choice of words does–writing in cursive, or “joined-up,” “linking” or “running writing” (as nobody calls it), is a thing of the past. Penmanship is officially dead, and you can blame it on the QWERTY keyboard.

In the sepia-toned days that preceded typewriters and computers, having good penmanship was a big deal. Schools emphasized it. In each of our subconsciouses, there is the implanted image of a schoolmarm walking around a classroom, ready to slap the arm the first child who writes outside the margins on his or her ledger. But the stress on penmanship was more connivingly institutional than many realize. In her book Handwriting in America, Tamara Plakins Thornton speaks of an “alarm” in Victorian America that the “‘deviant’ populations” of “pluralistic society” might tear the country apart by being morally and economically unrestrained. “[P]enmanship pedagogy,” she writes, thus “aimed to shape all Americans into a single personality type congruent with a rapidly growing, liberal economy” (55) [1].  Yup. As ornate as cursive is perceived to be, it ironically was created to standardize, to ‘vanillify’ handwriting. The goal was to write not only legibly but beautifully, and those who could do that felt a sense of pride.

Somewhere along the line though, penmanship stopped being so closely tied to personal identity. This change did not occur when my grandmother was a young girl in Catholic school; an avid reader who has always preferred writing letters to phoning or emailing, she claims people her age can identify fellow Catholic school-goers because their writing is uniformly “stretched” and oftentimes hyper-elegant. The change did not occur when my mother was in Catholic school either–she had “no choice” but to learn cursive. (And back in those days, they even taught you how to hold a pen the ‘right’ way too.) “It was just something that you expected [to have to do] because all the grownups that you knew at that time who were literate wrote in cursive. No one printed,” Mom told me. “All grown-ups wrote in cursive. … All the generations before you wrote in cursive.”

The unworshipping of penmanship started somewhere between my generation and that of my twelve-year-old cousin. I remember having cursive handwriting assignments in middle school. I remember once being praised in front of the whole class because, like a dork, I had decided in my spare time to work on my cursive lowercase ks. But my little cousin recently informed me that she didn’t have to write in cursive. She and her classmates did have a choice. What that meant, of course, was they wrote in print. So much for stopping the subversive pluralist elements!

I took to Internet message boards for the worst pseudo-scientific survey in the history of blogs. I went to three forums ruled by teenagers and twenty-somethings: NKETLKNsider2 and 1up. All had a thread that asked respondents if they wrote in cursive. “I write in cursive when I endorse a check or some shit of that nature,” said eloquent NKETLK user seniosoul. And that pretty much sums it up. After tallying unique responses on the message boards, I found that 41 of 71 respondents said they didn’t write in cursive unless they were signing important documents, and sometimes not even then. Another 10 said they used cursive depending on their mood, or used some mixture of cursive and print. Dozens bemoaned the ugliness of their penmanship, recalling how they didn’t even know how bad their handwriting was until they took a standardized test and had to churn out a longhand essay. This American indifference if not disdain toward cursive is new. Computers are the culprit: there’s no chance to show off good penmanship in an email, no need for it when business files are electronic.

Dramatic observers may say the death of pretty handwriting is, in some way, the death of an art form, the end of a classier era. More wistful folks might channel their inner Sam Cooke like my grandmother did, noting, in reference to the ever-march of technology, that “changes are gonna come.” But postmodernists are likely to point out the wry truth: the goal of penmanship training was to sterilize style, and the keyboard killed penmanship because letterform will always be neater than letter.

The writing is on the wall. And it looks like Times New Roman.

Photo courtesy Clout Online / [1] Thornton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. Yale: New Haven, 1998.

Brittany Coombs

Brittany is a former student in Georgetown's CCT program and is a Lead Blogger for gnovis. At Dartmouth College she majored in Modified Sociology, a hand-made major that analyzed communications theories through a "sociologically imaginative" lens. Her writings promote but question the intersection of humanities and digitality currently rising in academia. Her favorite area of study is Internet culture, as it houses the remix, meme, and citizen journalist subcultures. Brittany is a Baltimore native, a member of the coeducational Alpha Theta "frarority," and an avid lover of Motown music. She looks forward to a career in journalism, either old-school or online.