Saturday, June 7, 2014


This is an article about the deeper utility of learning cursive handwriting.  It describes that writing in cursive demands and exercises parts of the brain that block letter writing doesn't touch, and vice versa.  Likewise, it compares both forms of writing by hand to writing with a keyboard, which tends to require less mental agility and perhaps even to inhibit certain mental processes.  The article's assertions make intuitive sense to anyone who writes a lot.  For me, writing by hand (and in particular taking notes by hand) exercises different parts of my brain than writing on a computer, and gives me different ideas as far as how to express things and what to write about.

As a kid, I learned to write in cursive in second grade, after having learned to write in block letters in first grade.  I did the required schoolwork and wrote in cursive that year, then dropped it pretty much entirely.  I saw it merely as a school subject without much practical application; I never considered that one might actually use cursive writing in one's own life, because block letters just seemed so much more efficient and practical to me.  This despite the fact that both of my parents have always written in an elegant, spare, efficient cursive. 

More generally, I had and have always had pretty bad handwriting.  It isn't chickenscratch; indeed, it is one of the most legible handwritings I've seen.  At least it was when I was in grammar school; over time it has evolved as I've tried to make my writing more "efficient" and rapid, and recently it has become less legible as I rush to write everything.  I am currently trying to correct this, taking my time to make sure that what I write is really readable for myself and any other audience.  In any case though, my writing is not pretty by any means.  This is odd, because I generally have very good fine motor skills for things like sports, working with tools or delicate plants, etc.

But after reading this article, I am motivated to stress learning handwriting with my kids, regardless of how much their schools relegate it to a secondary status.  In a preschool workbook my wife bought recently, I have encouraged Caro and Sam to write letters freeform a few times after tracing the workbook's forms.  And eventually I'll want Sam and Paulo to learn cursive writing.  For myself, in a recent training course I've been taking at work, I've been taking notes in cursive and practicing all the letters, just like in second grade.  After so long without using it, I really do feel it working rusty parts of my brain, and indeed I make errors and slip into block letters at times.  It's fun.

This new attitude of mine towards cursive writing applies to other aspects of learning.  When I was seven or eight (and for a long time thereafter), I dismissed cursive writing because I couldn't see its short-term utility.  Indeed, I was almost proud of my ugly handwriting, because it was in acccord with my fervent insistence on prizing content over form or style.  In the same way, I didn't take very seriously the "soft" classes like art, music, or gym.  I was able to reason and argue pretty coherently that these things weren't important, and I'd been schooled to believe that I had a right to question and criticize such things.  I regarded as invalid the counterargument that I would understand the value of these things when I was older.  So essentially a mix of my childish short-term thinking and the arrogance of someone who is convinced that he's intelligent enough and has the right to question everything, combined to cut me off from things that, in retrospect, I think are very valuable. 

Today I am a firm believer in the importance of developing your body, your musical sense, and your artistic criteria in school, in addition to the "hard", more core subjects.  The gym, music, and art classes at my school weren't always particularly well-done, but if they had been, and I'd been more open to them, they could have really contributed to my formation as an integral human being.  As it was, whatever learning I have in these areas occurred mainly outside of school.  That said, what I thought were corny folksongs in grammar school music class have served me for singing to my children 25 years later!

While I don't believe in stifling a child's sense of questioning, of critical inquiry, and of argumentation, I am against fetishizing pure reason to the point where an elegant argument stands in for reality, where critical thought replaces common sense.  It doesn't make sense to give a seven-year-old total free reign in terms of what he judges worthwhile or not for his education, because that child doesn't have sufficient referents and context to know everything that's important in the world.  But just forcing a kid to learn things, or arguing that his youth invalidates his reason, isn't the way to go either. 

I suppose that for my kids (and for any other kids I encounter), if they argue something that I don't agree with, particularly an argument that dismisses or invalidates some aspect of human existence, I will counterargue with reasons to demonstrate the value of these things.  "You'll understand when you're older" isn't a valid argument for me, but neither is deferring to the rootless, ahistorical, short-term thinking of a child (or of the larger modern society, for that matter!).  And the precautionary principle always applies--you never know when something that seems trivial, like writing in cursive letters, may be found to have deeper repercussions, as the article shows us.

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