Over the past decade or so, something big has been happening in public schools throughout the United States: Instruction in cursive writing has all but disappeared, cut from curricula as schools bring more technology (and keyboarding) into the classroom. The new Common Core Standards for education omit training in cursive handwriting altogether. Even in the few schools where cursive is still taught, the subject is often covered in one year and writing in cursive is not required thereafter. Many young people entering college cannot write or read cursive. Indeed, many cannot even sign their name in traditional cursive.
In the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we have begun to see the ramifications of this shift and its effect on the research skills of college students. Recently, an undergraduate asked me for help with a manuscript she was studying. I assumed it was something along the lines of a medieval Latin text or perhaps even a particularly difficult Marcel Proust letter (our library holds the largest collection of Proust letters in the world), but when I bent over the letter to help, I saw that it was in English and in the very neat, clear hand of John Ruskin. “What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t do cursive,” answered the undergraduate.
We are now faced with a generation of students who don’t “do” cursive. Unfortunately, this means that they will be locked out of doing research with literary papers and archival collections. They will not even be able to read their grandmother’s diary or their parents’ love letters. An informal survey of rare-book librarians and archivists indicates that our experience at Illinois is not uncommon. Research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges. When the ability to read cursive disappears, our connection to history—and even to our own past—is lost.
Instead of merely bemoaning the decline of cursive, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Illinois is doing something about it. This summer, we will offer “Camp Cursive” for 8- to 11-year-olds, teaching the letter forms and practicing by reading manuscripts by famous authors. Special Collections libraries may not seem like the most obvious place for the 8-to-11 crowd, but as the caretakers of primary sources we feel that we must do something. If our educational system produces another generation of students unable to read cursive, miles of archival documents and literary papers will go unread and unstudied.
The benefits of cursive, however, go far beyond historical research.
Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization. Researchers such as Steve Peverly of Columbia University and Virginia W. Berninger of the University of Washington have discovered close connections between writing and cognitive development. Peverly, for example, has shown that students’ attention span improves significantly when they take notes by hand as opposed to clicking away on their keyboards. And those who can write more swiftly retain the information better. Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.
At the University of Illinois, registration for our “Camp Cursive” filled up as soon as it was announced. Activities during the camp will include lessons in developing one’s own signature, a short course in handwriting analysis, writing cursive on the campus plaza with sidewalk chalk, courses in the history of writing implements, mixing up recipes for invisible ink, and a “cursed cursive” contest in which students compete to concoct their best Shakespearean curse before writing it elegantly in cursive on the blackboard. The prize? A fountain pen, of course!
Valerie Hotchkiss is a professor and director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.