NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Over the years, the residents of this town tucked into a shoulder of the White Mountains have filled the pages of the local newspaper with heated comments about zoning, a bypass highway, a new school, and who deserves to win the New Hampshire primary.
But few other issues have prompted such passionate commentary in the Conway Daily Sun as the question of whether handwriting should be taught in the local schools. One day, the paper carried 43 opinions on the topic.
Most of them screamed: Of course they should. That includes the reader who said it wouldn’t make any difference, adding: “They can’t spell anyway.”
Maybe they can’t, but the schoolchildren of this community and of thousands of others scattered around the country aren’t being taught a skill so basic that it is almost always listed second in the ancient catechism on the function of schools. Not that the other two — reading and ’rithmetic — are being mastered by our young scholars either, but that’s for another day and another column.
We have in our time witnessed the shrinking role of the handwritten word. We no longer sign for gasoline at self-service pumps, and we write emails on a keyboard. The letter is as dead as a form of correspondence as the gavotte is as a form of dance.
The other day, I saw someone take out an $85,000 loan with an electronic signature. You would think you might use at least one of those free plastic hotel pens to borrow $85,000, but it wasn’t necessary.
There are loads of romantic reasons for the perpetuation of the handwritten word, and I’m speaking about more than love notes. (In an age of LOL, does anyone still know what SWAK means? Ask your mom. She will.)
There is real intimacy involved in a handwritten thank-you note, so much more personal than an email thanks, which we all know is often dashed off in a few seconds without even the courtesy of pushing the shift button to employ capital letters at the start of the sentence.
There is emotion that can be loaded onto anything written in cursive, impossible to describe but impossible to miss. And there is the utility of picking up a pencil and writing down a phone number or a personal note on a piece of paper and then tucking it into your pocket, where there is at least a 50 percent chance you will retrieve it before it goes into the washing machine.
Four of the most important documents in American history were written in forms that resemble script: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Laffer Curve that launched the supply-side revolution. Take away the pen, and you erase much of American history. It’s enough to make you think this entire movement away from cursive is a Communist plot.
Many of us of a certain age remember the torture imposed upon us by the evangelists of the Palmer handwriting method. These hard-bitten pilgrims — worse than the volunteer traveling dentists who shoved tongue depressors into our mouths once a year — would drive from town to town, reigning terror in classrooms as they assured there was a little jagged edge to the “F” we wrote in the upper case, and to see that the lower-case “z” had the three precise and distinctive motions.
Now almost every state has endorsed the so-called Common Core, which doesn’t require instruction in cursive. My bet is that the modern way of tackling a running back is taught in more schools than the old-fashioned way of writing a pass for the restroom.
That means fewer concussions, but also fewer billets-doux. And my point is sealed because hardly any readers of this column will have the remotest idea what a billets-doux is, and even fewer have received one.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org