cursive or block

Each handwriting tells a story of the person who wrote it. Or so I think when I read different handwritings as I correct students’ papers. A neat, textbook-like script evokes the student’s tidy personality, while large, slightly out-of-shape letters that span over two lines suggest a kind of free-spirited personality. Perhaps that person with such a sloppy handwriting might have a hidden side that is really deliberate, careful, and so forth. Perhaps my speculation has no scientific basis, it is nonetheless fun to imagine students’ dispositions through their ways of writing.

Personally speaking, I love cursives because it makes me aware of my habits. I know that I am supposed to put dots and accents after I finish writing a word, but somehow I am impatient and I put dots before I finish one word. I might not have the best calligraphic skills in the world, but I do admit I still love cursives because it sets me a goal of getting better at writing in that script. I remember when I was a junior high school student, my classmates and I would be comparing each other’s cursives to see whose cursives were the most beautiful.

This happened recently: As I was erasing what I wrote on the blackboard after a class was over, some students came up to me. Here follows the conversation (originally in Japanese):

Student: “Professor, thank you very much for your session. But I have one question for you.”
Me: “Sure, go ahead.”
Student: “Why did you start writing cursives on the board?”
Me: “Um…because it is quicker and that’s what I am used to? I hope you were able to read it; I wrote as legibly as I can.”
Student: “Yes, I was able to read it perfectly. [other students nodded, thank goodness] At the entrance examination, though, are we allowed to write cursives? I ask this because at my school, we are forbidden to use cursives entirely.”

I told the student that it was not a question that I could answer, but the examiners at the entrance examination would be able to. I was stricken by what the student told me. Why do the teachers “forbidden” cursives, I wondered. Is it because cursives are hard to read? Well-written cursives are beautiful, even pleasurable to read.

Of course, every teacher wants to read legible scripts and students should write as legibly as they can. But writing legibly and allowing/forbidding cursives are two different things.

I do not understand why teachers refuse to teach the writing script that holds a historical value; one that reflects the hardship that many centuries of writers have undergone in the past. Cursives would be the way to teach students to write legibly. It is the art of writing quickly, while maintaining the legibility of what is written. Cursives also remind us that since resources for writing were not necessarily abundant (compared to nowadays, at least), so it was used to get the most out of the ink. It is a skill that one needs to practice constantly. In a way, to abolish the cursives is to encourage people to be lazy or, not to think about how even writing came at the great cost in the old days.

A little Google search reveals how making their own pens was also an invaluable skill and it was an art in itself. And unlike the modern pens, quill pens did not last so long. But for a very long time (until when the steel nibs were introduced) that was how the writing — as we know from the manuscripts and codices— had to be done. Perhaps that with the advent of technology, the art of handwriting is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But I am not sure if we are warranted to forget and be ignorant of something just because it is a thing of the past.

Or maybe the motives for forbidding the cursives lie in somewhere else. Imagine a group of students, all learning nothing but block letters. Letter for letter do they have to follow the protocols. The end result are the “writings” that are there to convey nothing but what is written through the sequences of texts. The writer’s habits, personalities, anything exterior to the written texts are abolished. Perhaps it is all too preposterous to imagine an extreme situation like that.While there may not be anybody writing in cursive scripts, there will be people whose block letters will appear sloppier than others, despite the protocols followed. But then why is it that I feel really uneasy when something is stripped away from someone, on the basis of: “This is what everybody else is doing, so you have to do the same. If you do not follow what others do, you will be singled out for being different.”

I will not indulge in criticizing the integrative aspect of the Japanese culture here. But perhaps teachers could suggest: “Write legibly,” instead of prohibiting students from writing in a certain writing script. Maybe then the students can think, for themselves, how best to convey their ideas through written scripts. It will make students think that there are readers out there, who will read their writings. It can be a valuable piece of lesson.