Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a classic example of underachieving, Woody Allen's character in the movie "Take the Money and Run" fails to rob a bank because of bad handwriting. He hands the teller a note demanding the money, but no one on the staff is able to make it out. "That looks like 'gub,' it doesn't look like 'gun,'" the teller complains.
The would-be robber ends up in prison, which admittedly is a worse penalty than is generally meted out for illegibility. But his frustration in not being able to make himself clear when he commits words to paper has become common.
There's a reason that every form in America pleads, "please print." With people doing their work on computers or text-messaging each other via cell phones, adults don't get a lot of practice at keeping their cursive loops clean and neat. Even for schoolchildren, handwriting is fast becoming a lost art.
Most states still include instruction in penmanship--whether it's the Palmer Method, D'Nealian Script or Handwriting Without Tears--as part of the elementary school curriculum. Often, though, at the same time third- or fourth-graders are learning how to form letters in cursive, they are being told to use the computer to do book reports and other assignments. What's more, standardized testing requirements have forced teachers to all but abandon penmanship practice in favor of spending more time on math and reading.
Ironically, the newly revamped SAT college-admissions test has added a section that requires a handwritten essay. While the College Board says that none of the 1.4 million essays reviewed so far have been disqualified because they were illegible, "handwriting difficulties can affect writing processes for kids," notes Steve Graham, an education professor at Vanderbilt University, because they can't write at once quickly and legibly enough to keep up with the flow of their own ideas. Even he believes that eventually handwriting may lose out almost entirely to computers.
"You used to practice every day," says Michigan state Representative Edward Gaffney. "Now a signature is about all I write." Gaffney took this problem to heart, almost literally, a couple of years back when his doctor's scrawl led his pharmacist to incorrectly fill his prescription. Gaffney got the steroid Prednisone in place of Pravachol, his cholesterol medicine. It wasn't long before he drafted a bill that would have made the use of cursive in prescriptions illegal. It passed the state House but died in the Senate.
His real intention, he says, was to get doctors to stop writing entirely and encourage electronic prescriptions, but this also raises an important question: If doctors--and everyone else--can communicate electronically, what difference does it make that most people's handwriting resembles the leavings of a caterpillar who went dancing in the inkwell? Even many writing specialists think that cursive has become archaic. "The purpose is always communicating, whether using keyboarding skills or handwriting," says Carol York, supervisor of elementary language arts for the Hillsborough County, Florida, schools.
Graceful, handwritten notes have become such rarities that they now stand out--which has created a good business for David Redmon, president of DNR Group, which employs about 4,500 people part-time to write out notes by hand for fundraisers and other mass mailers. Some of Redmon's clients report that they get twice the response rate from his personalized notes than from their printed mailings.
The reason the handwritten notes stand out, though, is precisely because they are so rare. Even the best cursive writers in schools, it seems, don't necessarily hold such skill in the highest regard. Eric Lifka, a third-grader in Aurora, Illinois, beat out 140,000 other students to win a national handwriting contest last year. He won by writing out an answer to the question, "Why is it important to write legibly?"
"I didn't know what 'legibly' meant, but our teacher explained it to us," he said. "I don't think about my handwriting."