Thursday, December 19, 2013

Isaac's Penmanship Revisited

Isaac's penmanship
It came as a surprise to me that my blog "Isaac's Penmanship" has proved to be one of the most often visited, even months after it was first published.  (See 5-2-2012)  I suspect its popularity may have to do with people searching for reference material to use in teaching themselves or younger people the art of cursive, now that many schools are abandoning classroom instruction. 
At the time I wrote the original blog, I knew that a movement to make the teaching of cursive optional was underway, and the May 2, 2012 blog discusses that movement and the pros and cons of teaching cursive as part of the standard curriculum.  As with other fading traditions, the disappearance of cursive has been so gradual that many people did not realize what was happening.  In a recent article by Julie Carr Smyth for the Associated Press, she wrote that the new Common Core educational standards have dropped penmanship classes, citing the state leaders who developed those standards as stressing "the increasing need for children in a digital-heavy age to master computer keyboarding."  An assistant professor of K-12 policy at the University of Southern California was quoted as saying, "'s much more likely that keyboarding will help students succeed in careers and in school than it is that cursive will" 
According to Smyth's article, at least 7 states that have adopted Common Core have chosen to retain the teaching of cursive.  These advocates cite studies on brain science and the value to future scholars of knowing cursive to interpret a range of cultural materials, such as historical documents, ancestors' letters and journals, and handwritten notes by historical figures and scholars.  (See "Isaac's Penmanship" blog for additional discussion.)
Michael Sull

Consulting an old magazine article I had torn from the Nov/Dec 1996 issue of Country Home titled "Letter Perfect," I was reintroduced to a man known today as the leading authority on Spencerian script and as America's foremost living Spencerian penman.  In that article from nearly two decades ago, Michael Sull said of his decision to teach Spencerian script to others, "If I had taken this gift and decided to do nothing with it, I would have been falling down on some sort of moral responsibility.  I had a chance to preserve and extend part of our heritage. 
 Sull has indeed preserved and extended that heritage, as both the author of books and the calligrapher for Ronald Reagan after his Presidency.  The route Sull took to reach his esteemed position began with a degree in forestry from Syracuse University, followed by enlistment in the US Navy.  Only then did he pursue his interest in calligraphy, founding a calligraphy guild, working as a calligrapher and lettering artist at Hallmark, and starting his own ornamental penmanship company.  Like Isaac, Sull made his home in Kansas.  You can visit his face book page at Michael Sull or read more about him at where I found this recent photograph.
Of course, one of the reasons our ancestors polished their penmanship was to present themselves favorably in their letters, whether personal or business.  Author Simon Garfield, a British journalist, writes in his recent book, A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, "A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen," calling the distinction between an e-mail and a letter the difference between "a poke" and "a caress."  Yet, Garfield also predicts that the last letter will appear in our lifetimes.

Penmanship of beloved teacher Ralph Bisel

Recently, I bought several sheets of stamps, acknowledging to the postmistress that I had begun collecting as a way to share a common interest with my mother-in-law.  I admitted that with her passing, I should probably terminate my collecting, adding:  "I guess the stamps will always have the value of using them for postage."  The expression on the face of the much younger postmistress did not offer much assurance of the truth of my assumption. 

Penmanship of my parents from my grade card

Smyth's newspaper article cited USPS figures that 1st class mail fell in 2010 to its lowest level in a quarter-century, adding statistics that 95% of teens use the internet, with a rapidly growing number using their smart-phones to go online.  A 2012 Pew report found a rise among teenagers in text messaging from 50 a day in 2009 to 60 a day in 2011.   I would predict that the drift away from 1st class mail has only increased since those statistics were compiled.
Make your own generational handwriting comparisons, as I did with my parents and a special teacher, including the penmanship samples of yourself and your children.  What do you think you will find?  Will anyone write cursive as neatly as my teacher and parents did in the 1950s?
As you know from my earlier blog, Isaac continued to study Spencerian script as an adult, believing that proper penmanship was the sign of an educated man.  His neighbors respected Isaac's knowledge of contracts, grammar, and penmanship enough to turn to him frequently to write their agreements, and he was elected Secretary of most organizations he joined.  Has the time for such traditional skills passed?  Are we content with e-mails and text messages, or the occasional greeting card bearing only a signature? 

Here is a novel idea for your New Year's Resolution:  Consider digging to the bottom of that desk drawer for the old note cards you bought years ago or for the stationery someone gave you as a gift which you have never opened.  What a surprise for a close friend or special relative if you took the time to write a personal note wishing them a Happy New Year!  Or, could just forward them the link to this blog to say that you thought of them when you read my suggestion!   ;-)
New blogs will continue in 2014.  Until then, I hope the past year has brought you pleasures to savor and comfort for your sadness.  I hope you look forward to the New Year with eager anticipation, and may the coming months bring you joys you had not imagined!
Michael Sull's self-study penmanship workbook


The Blog Fodder said...

Happy New Year, Lyn. I am of two minds regarding penmanship or cursive writing. They still need to teach how to read it, though that may happen at University level in a grad research class. I wonder how will people write notes in class or to put on the fridge or leave on a pillow? I guess print them.
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,. And God fulfils himself in many ways,. Lest one good custom should corrupt the world"
Sometimes I am glad I am getting old.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple comments. I have been a Liaison Officer for the USAF Academy for 21 years. Just during that time period I have seen the decline or complete lack of penmanship. One thing students are evaluated on is the ability to communicate. If they can't write or if they write and I cannot read it they will not get the highest score possible in that area of evaluation and may cause them to seek an education somewhere other than the USAF Academy.
Second comment. My mother had beautiful hand writing and it was much better than mine. Before she could graduate from junior high school the Superintendent of Schools had to approve her writing as follows. She had to write a whole page of capital and small letters for each letter and each page had to pass the Super's scrutiny. I believe the most difficult one must have been the letter O both capitalized and small. The O letters had to be connected together on each line. You could do 10 lines perfectly and then mess up on the next line and if you did you would have to start all over on a clean page.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Anonymous, Thank you for your comments. I share your opinion that penmanship has a great deal to do with the ability to communicate...not only because of legibility but also because communication requires thoughtful consideration as we "think" on paper. Hastily written words are like words spoken too hastily--not always wise nor reflective of one's best reasoning. Further, untidy penmanship seems to me to disrespect the eventual reader of what you have written; it seems to say, "This may be hard for you to read, but that's your problem and not mine." Penmanship shows a certain discipline and personal regard for one's appearance to others, just as taking the time to comb your hair and clean your nails before going out in public shows discipline and regard for appearance. Perhaps the military still respects the importance of personal discipline more than the general society does today...

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Blog Fodder, I suspect many students now take notes on some sort of electronic pad. As for love notes on a pillow, I hope they still hand write those! I hate to see cursive become a lost art. I guess I have always regarded cursive as a way to make a personal appearance on paper, and I love receiving handwritten notes and letters from friends. Printing is far less personal, to me, and electronically communicated type even less so, although friends can be made in that fashion!