(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Last week, I was asked by CNN to comment on the news that most states will soon phase out cursive writing in order to give students more time to hone their digital skills. Initially, I wondered why the issue was receiving national coverage – there are bigger fish to fry, after all – so I posed a Facebook query to that effect. A torrent of comments followed, and I received several long emails from viewers who saw the segment and felt compelled to share their thoughts. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, and a strong one at that. Why were so many people so upset about this seemingly small development on the gigantic landscape of K-12 education reform?
This morning, as I watched my two-year old son make distinctive colorful swirls on his drawing paper, I realized what was going on: not only were we inching toward a new understanding about what each child must learn; we were also moving away from a deeply held belief about what makes each of us unique – the distinctive imprint of our handwritten signature.
The first issue is the one I tried to address last week – the powerful influence that memes have on our collective capacity to imagine new ways of addressing old problems or institutions. Ideas or memories that are shared among people in a given culture, memes are powerful obstacles to change – and they are ubiquitous in the American public school system. As Geoffrey and Renate Caine make clear in Natural Learning for a Connected World: “Traditional education is driven by a powerful meme that keeps replicating itself. One simply has to imagine several people gathering to talk about education to recognize how powerfully the meme is embedded. Individuals will visualize desks and books and a teacher in the front of the classroom. Grades, tests, discipline, and hard work will bind together the beliefs that everyone automatically subscribes to. These beliefs linger as foundational ideas that are rarely, if ever, questioned.”
Because we have such a strong shared sense of what schooling is (and isn’t), even small-scale changes to the way we think about elementary school — such as, say, phasing out cursive — will be likely to spark large-scale resistance. And yet rarely, if ever, do you hear a discussion of memes make its way into the national debate about school reform. It’s the equivalent of trying to help a garden grow by removing all the visible weeds – and ignoring all the invisible root structures.
In other words, arguments for or against the educational benefits of cursive only represent one part of the picture. Far more influential are the social and emotional memories we bring to the idea of elementary school itself, or the level of individuality we ascribe to our own handwriting, or the extent to which we fear the prospect of replacing something so familiar with something so unknown.
What do you think? How important, in the end, is handwriting to our own sense of individuality and self-expression? As we shift to a world where script is slowly giving way to e-signatures, and where the artfully crafted letter is crowded out by the cursorily crafted email, are we losing something irreplaceable? Or is the significance we attach to handwriting merely a reflection of our humanness that will, in time, easily migrate with us to new forms of communication and technology?