Once mastered, cursive enables us to write rapidly without lifting the pen from the paper—a skill that has major advantages over printing. Cursive now stumps many college students today. Whether it can ever make a comeback seems to be an issue.
At about 10 o’clock the other night, my wife called me out of my office at home to come and look at something that was happening outside. One of her sections of sophomore Oral Rhetoric had joined us for dinner, and after some speeches and beautiful toasts, they were now outside on the deck. As I came out, they pointed up to a line of five or six bright objects evenly spaced out in the brilliant night sky of mountain Wyoming. “Those are Elon Musk’s satellites,” one of them said. If I had heard of Musk’s Starlink system, I did not remember it. Now there they were, lined up like the stars in Orion’s belt, discernibly moving against the backdrop of the constellations and the Milky Way.
Obviously, we are a long way from the Telstar satellites of my childhood, which seemed like fabulous achievements in human progress. We are also a long way from the days when Alan Shepard and John Glenn were more famous than the new billionaires. The other day, there was a major success in Musk’s SpaceX program, which successfully launched a Starship in a test yesterday and then re-landed it on a pad in Texas. The concept is old hat in science fiction, but its actual realization represents a major advance from those heroic NASA launches in my youth, when the returning capsule (having jettisoned shortly after launch the massive—and massively expensive—rockets that thrust it into outer space) burned down through the atmosphere, the parachutes billowed up behind it, and the astronauts splashed down somewhere in the Pacific.
At Wyoming Catholic College, by contrast to SpaceX, we are not imaginatively distant from Homer or philosophically estranged from Aristotle. In some ways, we are in Musk’s brave new technological world, which now employs the heavens of antiquity for what Francis Bacon called “the advancement of man’s estate,” but not of it. Our whole purpose involves, rather, launching out into the great stream of ideas and images that come to us from the past, especially as that moving current reveals the relation between God and man in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Earlier in the evening last night, for example, several students described the “pack-rafting” trip (one of many options) that they took over the recent Outdoor Week. The same young man who later pointed out Musk’s satellites was explaining how setting and theme merged in their impromptu discussions, as they rafted down the Green River in Utah, of St. Augustine’s meditations on the nature of time in his Confessions.
Strangely, also earlier that night came one of the things that most struck me in the conversations with the sophomores. It had nothing to do with Elon Musk or the stream of time, but with the technology of writing: the use of cursive. I do not remember how the topic came up, but I asked them if cursive was still taught in their elementary years. Several of them looked a little uncomfortable with the question, as if they did not quite know what I meant by the word cursive. (Maybe a language consisting entirely of bad words?) It was almost as though I had asked if they knew Morse code. One of them averred that people used to write long letters in cursive, an indication of the higher intellectual accomplishments of the past. Several of them admitted, a little shamefacedly, that they could, on occasion, decipher it, though with considerable effort.
Seriously, it was odd. These are students who might be comfortable going on a canoeing trip in which no one spoke anything but Latin. Cursive, however, stumped them. What had supplanted it in their early studies was “keyboarding,” which used to be called “typing,” once a fairly specialized skill mastered by those going into secretarial positions or journalism.
Whether cursive can ever make a comeback seems to be an issue. It was not an issue for my generation. Even as the Russians were launching Sputnik, we Boomers were tracing letters in our workbooks, subduing the errant impulses of fallen nature to careful loops and connections. The idea was that, once mastered, cursive would enable us to write rapidly without lifting the pen from the paper—a skill that has major advantages over printing. Contemporary advocates of cursive claim that it does wonderful things for the brain, which may be true, but I cannot claim evident advantages in my own case. For example, I have been writing comments in cursive on student papers for many years now. Surely, I thought, they would benefit from the correction and praise. Morse code might have been better.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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