Hunting and pecking at penmanship

A recent study authored by Douglas Bruster at the University of Texas appears to have settled a centuries old debate. At the center of the controversy are 325 lines in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play “The Spanish Tragedy” that many scholars argue were written by William Shakespeare. The soon-to-be published article for the journal Notes and Queries provides compelling evidence to support this argument.

Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages (as the lines are known) — including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as print shop misreadings of Shakespeare’s penmanship.

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,” Bruster told the New York Times during a telephone interview.

Bruster goes on to state that the Bard’s handwriting was full of idiosyncrasies — odd spellings and poor penmanship. While this is an academic tale 400 years in the making, it goes to the heart of present day concerns.

As many parents may know, most school children are no longer taught cursive writing. The Common Core Standards don’t include lessons that have been a staple for generations. This curricular change has caused a small furor in educational circles.

According to the National Education Association’s journal, NEA Today, supporters of cursive instruction insist that it teaches fine motor skills, is faster and more efficient than printed handwriting, and that it enhances the creative process and has other cognitive benefits. In addition, many historical documents will be illegible if people can’t read in cursive.

Interesting, one of cursive writing’s most stalwart supporters is Jimmy Bryant, director of archives and special collections at the University of Central Arkansas. Bryant who has made national headlines on the topic told the New York Times, “Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country and should continue to be taught, not just for the sake of tradition, but also to preserve the history of our nation.”

Bryant is correct. The U.S. Constitution is written in cursive as are many other important historical documents. Moreover, your great-grandmother’s treasured letters were likely in cursive as well. If we fail to teach children this important skill, we stand to exile them from a huge portion of our cultural (and familial) history.

One of the primary reasons cursive teaching has been abandoned rests in our assessment-based society. We’ve all heard the phrase “teaching to the test.” In an era where benchmark test scores are used to determine the futures of school districts — an approach that is valid in many instances — a latent consequence is the exclusion of many equally important spheres of knowledge.

Of course most adults ultimately use a hybrid style of writing that includes both printed and cursive characters. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting expert, recounts a study of handwriting teachers performed by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.

Gladstone contends that handwriting matters. She argues that handwriting proficiency offers fine motor skills and cognitive benefits — whether in cursive or not. Even so, she insists that children should be taught efficient handwriting, which research shows is most legible and efficient when it combines print, or manuscript and cursive letters.

We all recognize that the digital age has transformed communication. No one argues otherwise. That said, cursive handwriting should not be a relegate of the past. It holds the key to history. It increases speed and dexterity. It is one of the few acts of civility that knows neither class nor racial divides.