This is a guest column; ‘Mihael Willman’ is the pseudonym for a concerned Canadian – JG.
By Mihael Willman
The news that a fourteen year old Canadian boy was unable to sign his own name on a passport application should be a wake-up call for education experts and parents alike. The move away from teaching cursive has been going on for a number of years in both the United States and Canada. The focus now is on making children “digitally literate.” According to some people, teaching cursive writing is a waste of time and no longer a necessity.
The growing decline in the use of cursive writing in the U.S. came to public notice during the George Zimmerman trial, when prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel testified “I don’t read cursive.” According to statistics, she is clearly in the majority among her generation. During the 2006 SAT tests, it was reported that only 15 percent of American high school students wrote their essay answers using cursive. In 2011/12, the school systems in Illinois, Indiana and Hawaii declared that the teaching of cursive writing would no longer be a requirement, with emphasis now on “keyboard proficiency.” A total of 44 American states have adopted the 2009 “Common Core State Standards” which no longer mandates its teaching, though States can still require that it be taught in their schools.
Did anyone consider the long-term effect of removing cursive writing from the curriculum, when the decision was first made? Did they even bother to consider just how many times and places signatures are required today? Probably not. They only looked at the amount of time required to teach cursive and decided that in today’s “technologically advanced” age, the ability to write and sign one’s name in cursive style was no longer necessary.
While most children and teenagers could probably get away without the use of cursive writing, once they enter the business world, there are numerous places where being able to sign your name remains a requirement. Try applying for a mortgage without attaching your “John Henry” to the document. Or signing any number of legal documents, such as wills, marriage license, driver’s license, credit cards and the like. Despite the fact that pin numbers are being increasingly used to replace signatures for credit card purchases, there remains the continued problem of having your pin number compromised. Meanwhile, a signature still requires considerable practise to forge. Printing your name at the bottom of a legal document is not as secure as signing it in cursive writing. Or do opponents of cursive writing feel we should go back to the days when an “X” was all people were able to scrawl on legal documents?
The emphasis on learning to use a keyboard, over learning cursive writing is misguided. Any child can learn to use the keyboard without great difficulty, whether it is a typewriter (which few people still use), a computer or texting on a cell phone. There is considerably less muscular dexterity required to tap away at these electronic devices, with either two fingers or two thumbs, then to hold a pen and write legibly and neatly. Granted doctors and lawyers are not exactly known for neat penmanship, but at least their signatures remain reasonably consistent and identifiable as their work.
One of the most unusual reasons for suggesting that cursive be dropped from the curriculum uses multiculturalism as an excuse. According to Anne Marie Laginski, superintendent of education for the region of Uxbridge and Brock, (“Why Johnny can’t sign his name” Toronto Star, June 23, 2013) the English Language Learners curriculum suggests that in a diverse (read multi-cultural) school system, students unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet might find it hard to recognize cursive writing. I don’t recall this being an issue when students who use the Cyrillic, Greek, Japanese or Hebrew alphabets were beginning to attend Canadian schools. They managed to learn to write in cursive script and the Latin alphabet just fine, thank you! So why should this be an issue now? What country are we living in: Canada or some third world country?
If we use multiculturalism as a reason for this change in policy, then by extension we could say that since the majority of new immigrants come from countries where the illiteracy rate is staggering, there is no need to bother teaching them anything! Right? After-all, they never attended school in their countries of origin, so why should they attend here.
Many among the younger generation seem to feel that cursive writing is an antiquated art whose time has passed and a complete waste of time. We now have all kinds of new technology, such as retinal scans, biometrics, facial recognition, fingerprints, etc., which can be used to identify anyone. If need be, we can probably insert computer chips into human beings, just like we do for animals, to keep track of them and provide conclusive identification. I bet the people who are concerned about privacy issues would really love that one. But there is one issue proponents of modern technology haven’t considered, namely what happens, if by some unforseen event, power was cut on earth? Not for a few minutes, a couple of hours, or at most a day, but for months on end. Just how would you suggest we use all those wonderful technological tools to conduct everyday business under such conditions?
Technology might be a wonderful thing, capable of all kinds of advances, but it has its limitations. The speed with which technology changes means that what is accessible today may be even more difficult to access or understand than Egyptian hieroglyphics, five or ten years from now. Just look at the five inch computer disks popular in the 1980s. Today they can only be used as frisbees, their content no longer accessible to anyone, as the computers they were made for no longer work or exist. How many electronic records, scans or biometrics created some years ago will continue to be accessible in the future?
The basics remain important no matter how advanced the technology might become. Placing reliance solely on technology is short-sighted in the long run. It seems that our politicians and educators seem more interested in having future generations become technologically savvy but functionally illiterate.