… are we on the road to becoming a nation of printers?
Since there has been writing, printing (more descriptively, non-joined-up writing) has been at least if not more important than joined-up, cursive writing. I go into more detail below. Summarizing here: cursive is more a means of writing quickly than of writing well.
And not for nothing, if kids don't learn how to write in cursive, will they have the ability to read the cursive writings of previous generations? How will that ultimately affect the knowledge base?
I’d be curious to see the results of a study of this question, but am nearly certain the answer is that people who can read a given language can read any legible writing in it, regardless of whether handwritten in a joined-up or non-joined-up style (more about this below). It’s been shown that we have an amazing ability to correctly perceive written words even when many of the letters in them are intentionally removed, rearranged, or changed – our visual perception system seems “hardwired” to overcome reading difficulties.
The greatest risk of being unable to read old writing, I think is language drift. For example, consider this text, written by Thomas Hoccleve around 1412:
The writing is non-joined-up, but I would find it no harder to understand if it were joined-up. Recognizing the letters is not what makes it hard to read – the change in language – words, spelling, syntax, etc. – is.
IMHO, joined-up writing should never have been taught as a required subject in public schools. That it was, and in some places still is, is due to education theory, not practical consideration about effective communication. I think it is primarily a social filter
in the sense described in Theodore Roszak’s 1969 The Making of a Counter Culture
– a mechanism of sorting students into vaguely defined “good” and “bad” catagories. Based on lots of anecdotes, I believe this particular filter, in the US since 1950, has been more harmful than helpful.
I think joined-up writing should be taught as an elective visual art subject, combined with a sound introduction to the history, theory, and technology of lettering, writing, and mechanical and printing.
The subject of teaching cursive
is illuminated by considering the practical technical reasons that cursive was invented, the history of its use, general history, and the history of education.[/b]
Let’s consider the practical, technological mechanics of cursive
Cursive (or, more descriptively, joined-up writing) was invented to accommodate writing with quill pens, which wear out more quickly and risk splattering ink when they are lifted. These problems can be avoided by writing carefully and slowly, and more frequently sharpening your quill with a knife, as hundreds of beautiful, slowly written medieval manuscripts, which have non-joined letters, show. So a major driver for joined-up writing is not only writing instrument technology, but a need to write quickly. The capacity to write quickly, in turn, requires an ample, affordable supply of writing medium, such as wood pulp paper rather than more durable and long-lasting, vellum or parchment, which is made of animal skin, or rag paper. Once these are available, it becomes practical to write not just expensive, ceremonial manuscripts and important records, but routine communication – letters, correspondence, and IMHO more importantly, ample “notes to yourself”. This occurred about 1850-1900. For a skilled intellectual elite, it occurred much earlier, about 1450, using plant fiber (hemp, flax, cotton) rag.
This technological history, and a non-systematic perusal of old non-ceremonial handwritten documents, leads me to conclude that joined-up writing wasn’t invented as “finished” writing form intended for widely shared documents, but a practical, fast-but-ugly form. As best I can tell, people who wrote a lot each developed their own, personal style – consider, for example, this ca 1700 sample of Isaac Newton (writing in Latin)
and this of his contemporary and correspondent, Gottfried Liebniz
Now let’s consider some general history
The industrial revolution occurred about 1760 – 1840. The means of production of commodities necessary for survival and comfort – cloths, tools, housing, food, etc. – changed radically, from distributed, small-scale craft work, to increasingly efficient large-scale work in centralized factories and warehouses. This centralization and efficiency production required much more and more skilled accounting than its predecessor, which required a lot more people – “white collar” accountants – writing. Not only did members of this growing , industrialized profession need to write fast, they needed to write legibly, which required standardization of their writing style. From this need sprang manuals and schools prescribing uniform styles of penmanship.
In the US ca 1840, Spencerian script became the defacto standard. By the 1860s, if had made its way from clerical schools to US public schools. It’s an ornate-looking, featuring lots of big swooping curls. The
logo uses it.
Ca 1891, a simplified cursive script was developed by Charles Zaner and Emler Blosner, and promoted in penmanship colleges and by the company they founded. This was the method I was taught in West Virginia public schools in the late 1960s, and the style I use, exaggerated, for my signature.
By the mid 1800s, typwriters of various as yet non-standardized designs already outperformed skilled handwriting in speed, being capable of over 100 words/minute vs. a max of about 30 for handwriting. By the 1870s, they were replacing handwriting in many business niches. The QWERTY keyboard, the shift key, and visible “front striking” keys all appear in this decade. By 1900, typewriters are common in business, increasing replacing handwriting.
When I learned Zaner-Blosner cursive,
in the 1960s, typewriters were widely available in public schools, libraries, and private homes. To the consternation of my teachers, I much preferred typing to handwriting, and would use it whenever given the option. My penmanship was mediocre. As soon as I was permitted, which in my school system was the 7th grade, in 1973, I stopped using joined-up writing, and resumed block printing, largely because it more resembled the typewritten text I preferred. At the same time, I had the good fortune to enter a good, very self-structured public school art program, taught by an excellent teacher. In that program, I was introduced to (in a required class) basic ideas, and (in elective subsequent elective classes) learned to write with a Speedball
pen, make and use a wood and quill pen, and print text using movable type and hand=carved wood printing blocks. I learned vastly more from these classes than my required Zaner-Blosner system-based penmanship classes.
Sadly, art programs like the one I had the good fortune to enjoy are often the first to be cut to reduce the public education cost. Such decisions are, I think, shortsighted and mistaken. Learning a specific technology, be it 19th century business penmanship or early 21st century keyboarding, is IMHO far less valuable than learning about history and technology in general. The latter prepares student to adapt to whatever their future lives demand.
I believe my affection for typing – which I was never taught in my 1966-1975 public school time – contributed to my enthusiasm to learn all I could computers, which became the object of my profession. Had I focused on the subjects and disciplines I was instructed to, I likely would have, like many “good” students I’ve known, found the computer teletypes I first laid hands on awkward and intimidating. My experience struggling to fix mangled Speedball nibs and gouge mirror-image lettering into a faintly graphite-marked wood block was, I think, far more useful to me than having learned cursive.