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What students lost since cursive writing was cut from the Common Core standards

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that the U.S. government removed cursive from “Common Core” standards. In fact, the common core standards are set by a group of governors and school officers from the around the country, not the federal government.]

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, I know I'm dating myself, but do you remember when you learned cursive? If yes, then you remember learning how to link your letters together just so and to keep them all nicely spaced, probably with the help of those preprinted lines. But if the answer is no, then you are the reason we are having this conversation. This is not throwing shade. It is a fact that in 2010, the U.S. government officially removed cursive from the required Common Core Standards for K-12 education. And frankly, with laptops and tablets replacing paper, the need to learn to keyboard has become more important. So the ability to read and write cursive has been fading from American society. But this matters because many of the most important historical documents in the U.S., everything from the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights, are written in cursive. And our next guest says something is lost when people can no longer read these founding documents for themselves.

In an essay for The Atlantic, historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes, we will become reliant on a small group of trained translators and experts to report what history, including the documents and papers of our own families, was about. Now, in addition to being an historian, Drew Gilpin Faust was the first woman to serve as president of Harvard University. And she is with us now to talk about her article, "Gen Z Never Learned To Read Cursive." Drew Gilpin Faust, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So in your article, you talk about a moment when you were teaching, and you realized that two-thirds of your class couldn't read cursive and even more couldn't write cursive. Could you just remind us, what happened?

FAUST: Well, I was teaching a class, a seminar for undergraduates at Harvard, Civil War history. And a student was giving a report to the class about a book he'd read. And he said one of the great attributes of the book is it had many wonderful illustrations, including illustrations of documents from the Civil War era. But, of course, he couldn't read those because he didn't read cursive. And I said, what? What? Wait a minute. What do you mean you can't read cursive?

And then it turned out that two-thirds of the students in the class couldn't read cursive. And I was just stunned. I had no idea. So I set out to explore some of the implications of that for historians and for history, because I am a historian, but also more broadly, just what it means when you can't read your birthday card from your grandmother and you have to have your mother translate it for you.

MARTIN: Talk a bit more, if you would, about why you think it's important for people to know how to read and write these documents for themselves, because you can imagine where some people will say, well, look, you know what? There are only so many hours in the day. Something has to give.

FAUST: Well, I didn't mean my essay to be a call for the restoration of cursive. I think that's not happening. But I did want it to alert people to the fact that cursive is and almost has disappeared and also to explore, what does that mean? And what do we lose, and how do we think about losing that? And so when we can't read documents from the past, then the past is presented to us indirectly. I mean, just imagine if you had some kind of contract that you had signed and you couldn't read it and someone told you, well, this is what's in the contract. That's what's in the contract. And then later you might find that it was something else. So there are limits in your power, in your sense of how the world works and your sense of how the world used to work when you can't have access to a means of communication.

MARTIN: You write in your piece about some specific handwritten documents that, in your words, tell stories that their creators neither intended nor understood. Would you just tell us a bit more about one of them?

FAUST: Well, I had a document that I discovered. I was writing a biography of a Southern planter from the early 19th century, someone who owned a plantation with hundreds of enslaved workers. And he kept meticulous records on these workers in a birth and death book where he would list births. And also, when he acquired enslaved workers from elsewhere, he would list them, too. And as I was going through all this and trying to recreate the links of enslaved people's family ties and so forth, I discovered that a young boy was acquired who's named Sam Jones. And James Henry Hammond, this planter, changed his name to Wesley because he wanted him to work in the house, and he thought Wesley was a more elegant name. And then 30 years later, I found that Wesley was recorded as having a son, and he named that son Sam Jones.

This is all in handwriting. And so James Henry Hammond, the planter, is telling this story that he thinks is just a record, you know, kind of an economic record of births and deaths of this human property. But one can see the retention of this family tie and this identity by this enslaved person, a young boy named Wesley, who rejected being named Wesley in some deep sense and kept his own sense of his Sam Jones-ness and passed it on to his own offspring 30 years later. And so today, I say in the article, we can still say Sam Jones's name, because this written documentation that the planter was unaware of the meaning of what I was able to stumble on 150 years later.

MARTIN: But I also thought what you said about personal documents, like I can remember, you know, when my own father passed away and I found among his effects letters that he and all of his brothers had served in the military. And they wrote letters to each other promising to take care of their future families or their families, because at that time, none of them had kids, if something should happen to them. And I - in this beautiful cursive handwriting. And it never occurred to me that my children might not be able to read that, you know what I mean?

FAUST: Exactly. Exactly. It does separate you from what has come before in a - both a very personal and individual way, but also in a larger way. As a society, it separates us from what has come before and understanding our origins and the meanings of them.

MARTIN: But you feel really strongly that that you are missing something that you could not learn from a typed version of it. You feel strongly that you don't get the same meaning from it.

FAUST: Well, first of all, you would want to make sure you entirely trusted whoever was typing it. That's one of my points is, is, how do we translate this? And who is the translator? And if someone wants to distort the past, they could present documents in inaccurate ways or leave out certain words. So there's that aspect of it. But then there's something else about documents that has always been thrilling for me as a teacher of history, which is when you take a student to see a document, those documents can be thrilling because you see a link with the past. I mean, we today are thrilled to get signatures from people. We stand in line outside rock concerts and World Series games because that piece of paper says this person touched this paper. This person is linked to me through this paper.

MARTIN: I imagine you've gotten a bit of a reaction to the article, especially I'm thinking about the uproar at the time when cursive was dropped from the Common Core requirements. Were there any interesting reactions to your piece that you wanted to tell us about?

FAUST: Yes. Well, I've gotten wonderful reactions, just people telling their own stories about what handwriting's meant to them or saying there are things that I didn't talk about that they think are really important about handwriting. It develops discipline or it develops fine motor skills or, you know, other laments about what's been lost. But some people have sent me really adorable stories.

One of my favorites is a story about a man who found that in a sort of free inquiry part of an elementary school class, the class was able to do something of their choice related to learning during a certain segment of the day. One little girl was bringing in cursive workbooks. And there was this little clutter of little girls who were teaching themselves cursive. And he mused, he wondered whether it was a cult or an organizing unit or what. But somehow these children wanted to learn cursive and took it upon themselves to teach themselves, even though it's no longer in the curriculum.

MARTIN: A cult of future historians. I think we could do worse.

FAUST: Oh, that must be it. That must be it. They're getting ready.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was Drew Gilpin Faust. She is an American historian, a former president of Harvard University. We're talking about her essay for The Atlantic, "Gen Z Never Learned To Read Cursive." Drew Gilpin Faust, thanks so much for talking to us.

FAUST: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.