Few issues in North Conway, Pa., tucked into a shoulder of the White Mountains, have prompted such passionate commentary in the Conway Daily Sun as the question of whether handwriting should be taught in 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.
We have 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.
There are loads of romantic reasons — the kind I like best — 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 beginning of the sentence. It is heresy, and very bad manners.
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 breast pocket, where there is at least a 50 percent chance you will retrieve it before it goes into the washing machine and leaches all over your best dress shirt — in the increasingly unlikely event you still wear a dress shirt. Don’t get me started.
All of that is without considering that 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.
Today 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 out a pass for going to the bathroom.
That means there will be fewer concussions, which is a good thing, but also fewer billet-doux, which is a bad thing, and my point is sealed by the fact that hardly any readers of this column will have the remotest idea what a billet-doux is and even fewer have ever received one. (Save this column for its historical value: This may be the last time that compound word ever appears in print.)
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.