Gene Weingarten: Cursive, foiled again

Gene Weingarten
Columnist October 24, 2012

As a person who is both old and grouchy, I have to fight the temptation to be a curmudgeon. So I am always looking for common ground with the young and the hip. (I like Ghostface Killah! Mostly! When his grammar isn’t really bad!)

Keeping the curmudgeon in me at bay isn’t easy, because I am increasingly annoyed by unacceptable modern incursions into what is Right and Proper, dagnabbit. I experienced this the other day when I saw a page of notes taken by my Washington Post colleague Rachel Manteuffel for a story she was writing. It resembled a page from an economics textbook.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

“You don’t write in cursive,” I said.

“I was never taught cursive,” she said.

Rachel is 28. As it happens, my son Dan, who is also 28, also prints his notes, but I had always assumed that was because he is a pain in the arse — a natural contrarian. One day in a high school art class, the assignment was to “paint a landscape.” While all the other kids were drawing mountainsides, lakes, clouds, circling birds and such, Dan sneaked outside and slathered paint on the trees. He argued this satisfied the assignment just fine. (The teacher disagreed.)


(by Eric Shansby)

So I checked: It turns out that Dan never was taught cursive, either. Further research confirmed that during the past 20 years or so, schools have been deemphasizing the skill. Many school districts are adopting something called the Common Core Curriculum, which eliminates cursive outright. The theory is that cursive is obsolete. Apparently, most writing — including class notes — is being done on laptops.

Yes, I find this outrageous, mostly because I am envious. Why shouldn’t kids today have to suffer through learning cursive the way we did, and from the same idiot book, which seemed to have been designed by 19th-century French fops with perfumed doilies in their sleeves. The cursive we learned was so mannered, so filled with whorls and flourishes and curlicues, that all American fourth-grade writing made the Declaration of Independence look like a refrigerator warranty.

A stronger argument is that if we lose the ability to write in cursive, we will soon lose the ability to read in cursive, meaning that, say, the original U.S. Constitution will become as indecipherable as a palimpsest, understandable only by experts in ancient runes who will be free to put all sorts of unintended “spin” on it. (The Second Amendment protects calligraphers? Well, if you say so.)

But the strongest argument is the obvious one: speed. Sure, with skilled typists, laptops are fast, but we’re not all skilled typists, and there will inevitably be circumstances where we must rely on pen and paper; why relinquish the speed? My son argues that this is nonsense, that he can print as fast as I can script-write.

Remember how John Henry won the pile-driving contest with
a machine? I decided to put it to a test, even if it meant that, as with John Henry, one of us would die. I chose a few lines of my favorite verse, laid it out before Dan:

“I wish I could drink like a lady. / I can take one or two at the most. / Three and I’m under the table. / Four and I’m under the host.” — Dorothy Parker

I gave us each a piece of paper and a pen.

“Ready, set ... go!” I said, and we each began scribbling furiously.

“Done!” Dan said. I still had a few words to go!

Impossible! Flabbergasted, I demanded to see his paper. It was printed, and perfectly legible. It read:

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” — Mel Brooks

B-but ...

“I never explicitly agreed to write the same quote,” Dan said.

Darned whippersnappers.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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