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Open W-F, 12-4pm, Sat 10am-2pm | (860) 364-5688

The Curse of No Cursive

By Marge Smith, Curator | Spring 2018

Those of us who went to grammar school before the days of computers and smart boards must remember the pride and frustration of learning to read and write in cursive. We bemoan the loss of that skill, although it is still being taught to third graders in some schools. But, do they stick with it? Sadly, most don’t, and that’s a scary thought for the future study of history.

Two recent additions to the SHS archives have really driven this point home. One is an 18th century register of meeting minutes and vital records of the Congregational Church. The other is five sweet thank you letters written by third grade students at Sharon Center School to the Cafeteria Helpers who had served them a special turkey dinner just before Christmas, 1954.

The letters are painstakingly printed, by hand, in pencil, on lined paper, in large clear letters. Not in cursive, and all clearly legible. The ledger, on the other hand, is filled with flowing cursive, some simple and neat, some elaborate, and some very hard to decipher–typical of the diverse writing styles of adults, and of the earlier standards of the mid-to-late 18th century. But the letters and the ledgers are now equally historical artifacts, and as such are sources of valuable information about the times in which they were written.

With a good bit of practice over the years, I’ve learned to read 18th century script as easily as if it were printed by those SCS students. I grew up writing cursive anyway, so it’s not too hard to do. The third graders who proudly get their Cursive License today have no idea of the significance of that skill, and most of them will forget it soon anyway.

I work with the third graders in Kent, where I live, on a few history projects each year. I make sure to ask them about their Cursive License, and then ask how many of them like history. Quite a few hands go up. The next question is, “Would any of you like to grow up to be an historian like I am?” A couple of hands go back up eagerly. So I show them a handwritten document from the really old days and ask if they can read it. Their little faces fall. Then I tell them that they can do it if they practice! Smiles again, and that’s good!

But it is a serious worry. Two summers ago, I had a college history intern working for me, sorting through a 20th century family’s large collection of letters. He finally admitted that he was really struggling with the writing that you and I read with ease. So we talked about the implications for future historians if they can’t comprehend the unique handwritten documents that make up so much of the world’s historical resource. He hadn’t thought of that and was concerned, but in the end, he wasn’t too worried – “There’ll be an app for that, Marge.” I wonder…. and pray that he’s right.

According to a recent CBS news report, ten states have considered legislation to add cursive writing to the curriculum. If that does indeed happen, we in the history world will breathe a collective sigh of relief!

By the way, our great SHS volunteers have photocopied that very fragile old ledger, and our college intern put the copies into a binder. You’re welcome to come browse through it. Also, if you have the skill of reading the old writing and would like to volunteer your time here once in a while, we have other ledgers and letters that could use some transcription. Those transcriptions will then be added to our website so that the details in our otherwise digitally unsearchable archives can be shared.

 

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