Months ago, I reconnected with my high school tennis coach and Civics teacher on Facebook. As we swapped stories he commented that when each former student’s name popped up, he would immediately remember his or her handwriting. Although he has taught hundreds of kids what he remembers most is their handwriting: the slant, the loopy loops, or the indescribable scrawls.
Surprised, I began thinking about folks I haven’t seen in years and I, too, could remember their handwriting style if I had seen it regularly.
I got to thinking about that when I saw the prediction that 2011 babies won’t know how to write in cursive, or any type of handwriting, because they will exclusively use keyboards.
Normally, I would have pooh-pooh’ed that idea until I read a memo from Indiana‘s Department of Education alerting local schools that they don’t need to order any more cursive workbooks because, to (wildly) paraphrase, cursive ain’t on the test. (But, keyboarding is.)
Adopting a New Style
Penmanship was for hundreds of years, I written symbol of one’s education and status. To have a “good hand” was an important social skill, much like knowing the right dance steps.
In fact, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries learning to write in a particular style was a way to improve yourself and to identify your social standing in the community. A clerk or scribe would write in one way, while a gentleman would write in another, and women in another style altogether.
Not that everyone had good handwriting. Historians can’t make out many words in lots of journals, diaries or common household documents because the handwriting is illegible, especially for those people who were not writing for an audience nor worried about their letters being evaluated by others.
(Plus spelling was a freelance effort. I’m always reminded of how Edward was embarrassed of Lucy Steele’s letters in Sense and Sensibility.)
Around the turn of the 20th century, top American thinkers and educators started experimenting with the progressive movement and wanted to eliminate class distinctions, so handwriting instruction changed as well. Schools began teaching an uniform style of penmanship called the Palmer method, after A.N. Palmer.
Soon, the Palmer method – with its neat loops and even, but plain, strokes – became the most popular handwriting in the United States. Although it was simple when compared to the fancier script of the the early 19th century, the handwriting was faster to write and easier to read.
In fact, today as family members begin to re-read letters sent home many years ago from their World War II soldier, they often comment that regardless of the soldier’s level of stress in combat, his handwriting is remarkably read-able thanks to the the Palmer method.
Time marched on, and in the 1960s and 1970s, educators thought the Palmer handwriting was too rigid, so American schoolchildren were given less instruction in handwriting and more freedom to “develop” their own style.
As fewer teachers were trained to teach handwriting, penmanship took up less time in the classroom. Then, as the 21st century approached, and standardized testing and computer keyboards took center stage, handwriting has become a hit and miss skill.
Some schools stress it, while others don’t bother after a child has learned to print.
Although schools haven’t emphasized handwriting or penmanship in decades, there still lingers a bias against poor, sloppy handwriting among teachers, parents, and adults which students – with little penmanship training – have had to contend with when writing essays or answering questions on tests.
Over the years, research has shown that papers with better handwriting consistently received higher scores than those with poor handwriting.
Getting to Know You
Whether neat or messy, most folks do feel handwriting is still the most personal form of communication. Etiquette experts continue to recommend a handwritten thank you note or letter for wedding and graduation gifts, and many human resource managers say that a handwritten thank you note after a job interview makes a bigger – and better- impression than an equally gracious email.
What about you? Do you like a handwritten letter?
Photo credits: Culture 24: “Derbyshire Record Office Given 18th Century Cook Book” , Palmer Method of Business Writing, A.N. Palmer, and personal images.