PENMANSHIP PART 2:
Penmanship's Storied Past and the Technological Roots of Its Revival
By Karl Barksdale © 2004
Long before the click and clack of the typewriter, before the tip and tap of the keyboard, the scratch of pen and ink on paper echoed through the corridors of every business. Then as now, educators were assigned the task of preparing students for the business world.
Today, however, business educators are discussing the appalling lack of cursive. Some students can't write it and others can't read it. And it's not just an elementary-secondary school problem. Even some college teachers are concerned about the ability of some students to read and write cursive.
It's time for business educators to lead a cursive revival. To make this revival happen, we should explore the business education roots of penmanship and the technological roots of its revival.
A BUSINESS HISTORY OF PENMANSHIP IN AMERICA
In the 1800s, penmanship was serious business. There were many colleges of penmanship. One very influential school was founded by Charles Paxton Zaner and his eminent partner in pen education, Elmer Ward Bloser. Their school, the Zanerian College of Penmanship, was located in Columbus, Ohio. Zaner and Bloser and the college became legendary as they prepared students in the essential penmanship skills required for the world of work. They also ran a demanding teacher education penmanship program. Graduates had to prove themselves by completing a 10,000 word thesis that the conclusion of their coursework.
Both Zaner and Bloser stood on the shoulders of the great penmanship leaders that came before them. Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864) created the most accepted and prized cursive writing method used in business during the early 1800s. Before the Civil War, Spencer was the king of the handwriting world. He was also an outspoken supporter of American business education. An avid abolitionist, he used his notoriety to speak against slavery and contentedly lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation.
Spencerian writing was noted for its wide DECENDERS or downward strokes, and narrow ASCENDERS or upward strokes. It was described as artistic, professional and even elegant. In the Victorian age, such elegance was greatly admired. Those that could create such writing were in high demand.
Penmanship was as important then as keyboarding and speech-recognition are today. Employees with penmanship skills were required in order to handwrite the many business and government documents required in a growing and thriving post-Civil War economy. Students with aptitude would master ornamental styles. Such flowery penmanship was highly prized for diplomas, certificates, awards, and formal declarations. This is the era when the forms and formats of current business letters were devised.
To achieve perfection, students worked as hard on their penmanship in the past as they do with their PCs today. "More than just a means of communication, handwriting has always been a form of self-presentation. Colonial merchants ranked expert penmanship ahead of arithmetic and bookkeeping as crucial to business success. Victorians associated good handwriting with self-assurance, trustworthiness and a capacity for hard work - in short, with the highly prized attribute of 'character.' By the mid-19th century, as a result, legions of penmanship instructors could be found in both common school classrooms and specialized commercial programs." (Lynn Niedermeier, A Sign of the Times, Echo, August, 2002, http://www.wku.edu/echo/archive/2002August/stories/penmanship.htm)
It's interesting to note that Zaner was born in 1864, the year Spencer died. The penmanship torch was passed to a new generation. Zaner studied at the G. W. Michaels school and decided to make a career of penmanship. In 1888, he began the Zanerian College of Penmanship. With Bloser, his partner he taught, wrote books on handwriting, and published a penmanship magazine. The magazine was called the Business Educator. Their efforts gave birth to a company that still exists today.
In 1904, Zaner and Bloser finished their most important work -- a new textbook that simplified the acceptable style of business writing. With this work, the dynamic duo became the most influential penmanship instructors in the first part of the 20th century.
Zaner and Bloser also attacked the ergonomic issues of their day, requiring penmanship students to use full arm movements to reduce the stress handwriting inevitably places on the hands and fingers. (Sound familiar?)
You can still buy banners of the Zaner-Bloser script. Many still adorn elementary classrooms throughout the North America. I have one in my classroom to remind students how to properly form their letters in cursive. A few also use it to help decipher cursive as it appears in the corrective marks section of our DigiTools textbook.
Zaner was killed in a car in 1918 by a passing train, and the penmanship torch was necessarily passed once again. Following the Zaner-Bloser era, a simplified, matter-of-fact style was created by Austin Norman Palmer, a penmanship instructor in New England. The Palmer method was a style that could be written more quickly. It was characterized by larger ovals and quicker up-and-down strokes. The method was soon adopted by schools throughout the United States and became the accepted penmanship standard for most students in the past century.
WHAT'S KILLING CURSIVE?
By the time the Palmer method was reaching its zenith, the typewriter was already putting pressure on penmanship. As the typing movement accelerated with the advent of the personal computer, many wrongly believed that the personal computer would kill penmanship altogether. A CBS News article (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/06/09/national/printable557572.shtml, June 9, 2003) -- entitled Penmanship: a Dying Art? punctuates the point that many people now believe that they don't need penmanship skills.
A mindset has been promulgated among students and teachers alike that penmanship doesn't matter because students "will type everything." Other complaints have been made that keyboards, joysticks, cell phone touch pads, and the mouse have taken practice time away from handwriting. This practice time is necessary to achieve handwriting sensitivity and coordination. The lack of practice decreases the ability to write legibly. Many students don't even know how to hold a pencil properly or how to handwrite in a way that limits injuries.
Lamentably, many elementary and middle schools have given up on cursive altogether and do not require cursive on English, social studies, and science essays. (Read part 1 of this article.)
Others lament the loss in more personal terms. "Cursive was so character defining when I was in school," says Amy Greene to USAToday. "The way you wrote something was considered part of your inner being, your core, your worth.... Now it's considered an anachronism." (Keyboarding Killed the Penmanship Star, USA Today, downloaded 9/26/03, www.USAToday.com/tech/news/2003-06-06-cursive_x.htm.) While we would consider linking character to penmanship out of touch with modern thinking, anyone over 40 still truly believes that penmanship matters! It's our turn to pass our penmanship torch on to the next generation.
THE TECHNOLOGICAL ROOTS OF THE PENMANSHIP REVIVAL
Handwriting is, once again, an essential business education skill. Fortunately, we now have the handwriting technologies required to reverse this negative educational trend. While there are many students now that have trouble deciphering and writing cursive, the situation can be mended quickly if business educators take on the challenge of reinforcing penmanship -- particularly cursive handwriting -- in their computer labs.
Far from killing penmanship, the PC with Wacom tablets and Microsoft handwriting recognition, PDAs with transcriber technology, tablet PCs with built in pens and handwriting software, and innovative programs like Microsoft OneNote will cause a revival in penmanship.
The bottom line is this; if students can't write clearly, much of the power of modern, mobile PCs will be lost. New handwriting friendly technologies have helped bring us full circle, back nearly 30 years, to a new era when penmanship truly matters again, not just in business, but in academics as well.
While modern handwriting recognition software clearly recognizes printing, cursive is faster, smoother, and creates less errors. The reason is simple; Microsoft handwriting recognition is a word recognition technology. If you connect the letters together using cursive, the software is less likely to interpret your writing as two or even more words.
For example, consider the word UNDERSTAND. If written in cursive, this word will nearly always be recognized by the handwriting recognition software. However, if it is printed, and the spacing isn't perfect, it may proffer two words, UNDER and STAND.
Besides that... who wants to send their teenager to college printing? Cursive is simply more efficient for notetaking!
It's time for a revival... a revival that must start with business educators helping the rest of the educational community rethink the viability of handwriting recognition, penmanship, and cursive.
We can all work toward the day when decenders and ascenders once again flow effortlessly from the pens of young students practicing a practical and revitalized business education skill called penmanship.
Here are a few other tidbits and Web links:
The Zaner-Bloser banners can be purchased through Trend Enterprises Inc. find a local distributor by visiting www.trendenterprises.com.
Joseph J. Bailey (1879-1970), a graduate of the Zanerian College of Penmanship in 1910, introduced his method to Canada. He authored three textbooks and training manuals for elementary educators.
Lynn Niedermeier, A Sign of the Times, Echo, August, 2002, http://www.wku.edu/echo/archive/2002August/stories/penmanship.htm (A wonderful article.)
A great look at the
life of Zaner: http://www.zanerian.com/Zaner.html
(another fun stop on the Web.)