Monday, September 19, 2016

A Rebuttal to the Anti-Cursive Lady: Why Anne Trubek is Wrong

This is not a pen blog.  But I like and review pens.  I carry some nice ones--an Edison Pearlette and a Pilot Vanishing Point are current favorites.  And I like handwriting.  I take a metric ton of notes, as most trial lawyers do.  And I check in on the pen world every week thanks to the amazing Pen Addict Podcast.  So when Brad was railing against a New York Times Op Ed piece on the death of cursive, found here, I took a gander.  The quick summary of my response is simple--Anne Trubek is wrong.

Here is the full length response.

Ms. Trubek's argument against cursive is something that I have researched and thought about.  I think there are three relevant parts to the rebuttal--a bit of background on the author so you know where she is coming from, an analysis of her facts, and an analysis of her argument's logic.  I think any one of these three avenues should make you question the merits of her position, but when you combine all three I think it is clear that she is wrong, she has an axe to grind (and a book to sell), and her style of argumentation and thinking is part of a larger trend in "cultural and intellectual journalism" that is just plain bad, dismissive of certain people, and decisively anti-thinking.

About Anne Trubek

Ms. Trubek taught Rhetoric, Composition, and English at Oberlin College from 1997-2015.  She was a tenured professor.  Oberlin is a prestigious university and achieving tenure at such an institution is a true intellectual accomplishment.  My wife is a professor and many of my friends are as well, some in the same field that Ms. Trubek taught, and I can say that that position alone is a sign that she possesses some real gifts.  Ms. Trubek, in an odd move, resigned her tenure post.  She did so, according to that article, to be a freelance writer full time.  This is important to remember, as she is selling her writing, including a book on the history and end of handwriting. 

But if you dig a little deeper into her academic career, you find this.  Rate My Professor is a silly site and generally I ignore everything on it.  For Pete's sake it invites you to evaluate how attractive your professor is.  But in this one case there are some telling reviews of Ms. Trubek.  Many of the negative reviews share a similar thought--she states her opinion as if it is fact.  This is something that is clearly seen in her Op Ed piece linked above.

Furthermore, Ms. Trubek ranks poorly in citation indexes.  On Web of Science she has three works, all of which are book reviews for the New York Times, and those works, collectively, have been cited once.  Citation indexing is something more common in the sciences, and it is new to the Humanities, but the idea is to try to figure out how important a person's work is by how many times other scholars have cited it.  This showing on the most reliable and largest citation index system is very poor.  There are no scholarly articles listed at all and a single citation to the works Ms. Trubek wrote.

But I need to put out a few caveats.  First, these systems are very new in the Humanities.  Second, Web of Science, the gold standard in the sciences, is leading the charge in the Humanities, but I would concede that there are probably differences between poetry and chemistry that make citation indexing less important in the Humanities.  Finally, it may be that there is another citation index for the Humanities that I am unfamiliar with that is more important and might have Ms. Trubek doing better.  The person that ran my search for me is very familiar with Web of Science and I trust that there were no user errors in getting these results, but these other things might mean this is not the most important point against Ms. Trubek and her argument against handwriting.  There are lots of problems with the citation index system, but, like with many systems, the extremes can be indicative and here, in this one limited but highly important method of determining the value of one's scholarship, Ms. Trubek doesn't seem to be that important of a scholar.

It's also important to point out that maybe Ms. Trubek might not want to be a scholar, but instead an author.  If that's the case, it's fine to ignore the citation index.  She does much better on Goodreads.  She has five books, two of which are anthologies.  All of them average 3.43 out of 5 stars or better.  That's a much better showing than her scholarship, which is basically non-existent.  This isn't a surprise based on what she said in the article where she talked about giving up tenure.  There she mentioned a feeling of isolation from the language of scholarship.  She describes herself in a few places, like that tenure piece, as a writer, not a scholar.       

Its also clear that as anti-cursive as she is, she is also a typing apologist.  It is one thing to claim that you are a researcher and through that research you have reached an unavoidable conclusion.  Its another to be an apologist.  In the past, there was a strong intellectual tradition in being an open and unabashed apologist.  Pascal, of the famous Wager, was one.  Just because you have a bias, doesn't mean you are wrong or that you can't make good arguments.  But instead of being honest about her position as an apologist, she is not forthcoming, either about her need to sell her writing (again, something that, in and of itself is fine) or her position as a proponent for cursive's "opponent" (in her mind)--typing.

Finally, Ms. Trubek runs a digital publishing company/small press and lectures and runs workshops on writing.  The main thing she publishes is--ready yourself--a magazine.  Getting pieces published in the New York Times is great publicity for that, especially when she takes a position like she did, one that is bound to stir up controversy and give her more visibility.  That said, running a magazine, even a digital one, while condemning cursive is a bit like using an oven instead of a fire, but still riding a horse instead owning a car.  Magazines of all stripes, digital and otherwise, are a dying breed.  Perhaps she should do an autopsy on magazines next.

Fact Checking Her Piece

There were a lot of factual assertions in the piece, some of which were linked and some of which were not.  The fact that they were linked, while showing her work, does not mean that she accurately summarized the source material.  Additionally, she used buzzwords and jargon, some of which were not used correctly (or misleadingly).  She ignored bits of history that, given her book's subject (the history of handwriting), seem like something more than a regular omission.  Then there is the one thing that tells me something is truly amiss.  Let's go through these one at a time.

First, there is a clear point of derision that is common among intellectuals.  Note that all of her references to backwater political entities championing cursive came from the South--Louisiana and Alabama.  Some parts of American intellectual circles stare in puzzlement at things that happen in the South and as if to say--"How could those rubes think that way?" While there are things I don't like about the South--a historical embrace of society-wide racism, for example--I think the wholesale dismissal of people because of where they are from is intellectually superficial and bad for intellectual discourse in America.  Why did she not include California's efforts to save cursive?  It may have been an honest omission on her part, but it could have also been that including California didn't fit her narrative of "those rubes from backwater states love cursive."

In her article Ms. Trubek also notes that when the Louisiana legislature passed the bill to include cursive in schools they shouted "America".  She attributes this to some silly link between cursive and patriotism--a form of jingoism certain intellectuals love to deride.  This point is both a misrepresentation of the facts and a cover up of the true reason the politicians in Louisiana celebrated their bill passing.  According to the Times Picayune, the senators actually said: "America" and "Viva la France!" This is hardly the jingoism Ms. Trubek highlighted.  Digging further, the journalists for the Times-Picayune found that the legislators were celebrating cursive's role in historical documents like the Magna Carta and the Constitution, not in some simple, stupid politicized connection between America and cursive.

This brings up another point about her dismissal of the connection between cursive and American history.  In fact, there is a strong connection.  When the nobles rose up against the crown, they usually signed their documents of protest using something called a round-robin signature method.  Instead of signing the document at the bottom, thus putting names in order (which could then be seen as showing who the leader among the rebels was), signing round robin style made everyone of equal status.  Here is an example:

With the Declaration of Independence, the US rebels were more bold not bothering with the round-robin method.  Even bolder still was John Hancock, who signed the document not only in the center, thus signifying his leadership role, but also in his own distinctive cursive.  Cursive was important here because, it more than anything else at the time (when there were no pictures) was a signifier of the person.  Hancock, by signing the document in the center in his large distinctive cursive script was telling King George "Come Get Me!"

But Ms. Trubek leaves this out of her bashing of cursive--a fact that not only explains why the Louisiana legislature was shouting "America" but also why the real celebration was for history, not jingoistic patriotism.  But that doesn't fit her narrative either, and so she changed some facts and omitted others.

She claims that innovations in writing had to do with speed, and that is true.  But the jump from quill to ballpoint is not a fair point.  It wasn't goose feather one minute to Bic Crystal the next.  There were fountain pens in the mix.  And the issue, in my mind, wasn't speed--my fountain pens write just as fast--but convenience.  Ballpoints were cleaner and did not need to be refilled.  They were also cheaper.  Speed is not the point in her one example.

And a second point on this issue--I am pretty fast with my pen and my keyboard, but there are times, such as in court noting live testimony, that I would RATHER have a pen than a keyboard.  Even if you set aside the noise, which will draw the ire of the court reporter and the wrath of the judge, there is the fact that you can easily and visually relate and append notes.  I might be able to type faster in a pure, record what people are saying sense, but if I want something useful AND fast in the end, I'd rather have a pen and paper.

She also talks about the goal of early childhood writing education being "cognitive automaticity", a term used in psychology.  Some research in to this point shows she misses the bigger picture.  Its not just that we want kids to not think about writing, but instead write about thinking.  It is that we want them to enter into flow--a psychological term for enhanced focus and processing speed.  There, the research is not conclusive.  In fact, Susan Sontag and Truman Capote were both known to write by hand and enter "the zone" when doing so.  Furthermore, this enhanced focus when not typing has been found to occur in us mere mortals and our children.  Finally, if she was even a bit more honest, she would realize that many great painters enter flow when using brushes and painting by hand, something akin to writing in cursive.

Her notion that a keyboard makes writing thoughtless might be true, but I do not think that is an admirable goal at all.  Finally, on this point, compare her desire for automaticity with research done on mindfulness, something that studies have shown is very good for you.  Cursive, especially well done cursive, requires an attentiveness that is very akin to exercises done by mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn, specifically, his warm up exercise on eating a raisin. There is even research done on this link between handwriting and mindfulness.  Having automaticity as a goal completely misses the point.  Automaticity is a way station on the path to flow and she cited no work showing that cursive or handwriting in general impacts one's ability to have enhanced focus and processing speed.  Personally, I'd rather have some thoughtful, relaxed kids writing things out, than a bunch of wired keyboard crackheads texting each other every five seconds.  One of those seems healthier than the other.     
I could find no source to support her claim that Palmer replaced Spencerian because it was more manly.  Nor could I find a source to support her quotes around the phrases "powerful hygienic effect" and "initial step in reforming many a delinquent".  Ms. Trubek should have shown her work here and didn't, but the quotes make a reader think she is pointing to a historical source.  She might be, but we don't know what it is.

Then there is the claim that is simply preposterous--the fact that her son "had to stay inside during recess for much of third grade because he wrote his j’s backward."  I am a parent.  I send my son to a very traditional Catholic school and I myself attended such a school.  We both have had nuns and lots of them.  I was forced to do cursive and he will be too and yet I have never heard of this sort of punishment.  It defies belief.  If anyone was going to be forced to stay inside, it would have been me, but it just didn't happen.  Furthermore, I can't imagine, as a parent, not stepping in at some point.  By about October, I would have said something to the school administration and if nothing happened then, by January my child would be in a new school.  It is also worth mentioning that in the Freaknomics episode she was on she said her son was in second grade.  This smacks of literary license and outright exaggeration.  Frankly, this, more than anything else she wrote tells me that her argument is nothing but shit.  No school outside of one that teaches gymnastics in Communist China does this.  And if you are going to get on two national sopaboxes to complain, at least tell the same lie twice.   

The Logic of the Argument

The logic of Mr. Trubek's argument is basically this: cursive is dying, it doesn't do all of the things people think it does, and therefore we should not lament the loss of cursive.  Under all of this is a notion that education is about preparing kids to be employable members of society.  I would first dispute the logic of the argument, especially the argument's hypothesis.  Then I'd dispute the notion that education is merely about converting raw materials (children) into workers.

It's hard to disagree with the notion that cursive is being taught less in schools.  With the advent of keyboards, computers, and texting, I'd agree that it's pedagogical role is being reduced.  But I think it's equally difficult to ignore the number of people, adults, that enjoy pens and handwriting as a hobby.  Its also hard to ignore the fact that in the adult working world, especially the one I am in, handwriting and cursive still play a major role.

Lots of stuff moved from the class room to the hobby den and has done just fine.  We used to teach blacksmithing in school or had programs (apprenticeships) set up to do this.  Now, it's not even taught in vocational schools.  But it is doing fine, especially considering there is zero actual industrial need now.  Forged goods are a pure luxury and there are a growing number of folks learning how to forge steel.  As proof of this--the American Bladesmith Society recently approved the first blacksmith school in the US, up in Lewiston, Maine, run by a number of people including friend of the blog Nick Rossi.  It will never be as big a thing as it was, considering we don't shoe horses for travel anymore, but like cursive, forging is surviving and growing compared to its worst state.  Cursive isn't dying it is transitioning and Ms. Trubek either fails to see this or ignores it because it doesn't serve her economic purpose--selling a book about the death of handwriting.  

So the premise is faulty or at least ignorant.  But the real rallying point for me is the notion that education is merely a process of making children employable.  My bias here is pretty clear.  I went to a liberal arts school.  Two of them actually, both run by Jesuits.  My wife did too.  And she teaches at one now.  Suffice to say, I am a firm believer in the liberal arts philosophy of making a well-rounded person.  

The idea that education is this great mill that has an input of cheerful little ones and cranks out mass-produced work widgets is not only dispiriting, but part of a society-wide problem.

So many people go to college without any real notion of what they want to do in life and while in college, because they are not forced to encounter things they would otherwise never encounter, they pass through higher education without learning much and are put out on the other end with a useless degree and end up as the best read and most well-educated dishwasher on the planet.  This discontent was one of the driving forces behind the Occupy movement.  As a philosophy student, it was a notion that occurred to me many times.  But the bigger issue is this--in part due to my liberal arts background I could flex into a number of different careers, equipped with an idea that I wanted more than a job.  I was looking for an occupation that would both earn me money, satisfy me intellectually, and help the world be a better place.  I found that career as lawyer (the stopgap for all humanities majors when you realize your degree does nothing in the real world).  Without exposure to many different ideas that come from a liberal arts background, I would have never had those goal or the resiliency to flex from philosophy to the law. 


Ms. Trubek is wrong.  She is ignoring reality in more than a few places.  And some of her stories and anecdotes are simply unbelievable.  She is also doing something that every 5 year old does--she admits she has terrible handwriting--maybe it's the classic case of "things that I am bad at don't matter."  

Cursive may not be a lesson in school for long, but that is a sad commentary on our view of education and it might be the thing that releases cursive into a new world of creativity, such as the art Jake Weidmann does.  We lose something when cursive goes from the curriculum--a connection to history and our past and a chance to slow our busy lives down.  That is something worth lamenting, even if you are selling a book saying otherwise. 

The final point I want to make is a cautionary one.  To be virulently anti-cursive or to cheer its demise is as intellectually tyrannical as being a cursive authoritarian as a teacher.  It's also silly to think that kids can't do both.  There is plenty of space inside our children's brains to learn how to type and how to write in cursive.  And there are times, such as in the middle of trial, that cursive is the best way to go.  Simply because these events are outside of Ms. Trubek's evidently tiny bubble of experience (I would have called it an ivory tower, but she left that), doesn't mean they are illegitimate.  I have seen lawyers from some of the wealthiest firms on Earth writing in cursive in court.  They are working on billion dollar plus cases and frankly any option they want is available to them, so the choice of cursive says something.  Cursive has a place, both as a hobby and as a work skill. Maybe Ms. Trubek can't see that from where she sits, but that doesn't mean she is right and cursive is dead.  As her RateMyProfessor reviews say more than once, she is stating an opinion (and an ill-formed one at that) as fact.   And she is wrong.


  1. I have no real dog in this fight, but after reading the op-ed and your response I can't help but feel you've spent significant time skewering a strawman. I simply don't see anything virulently anti-cursive in the piece and it even acknowledges the enjoyment of putting pen to paper. It seems to me the thesis of the piece was that the loss of cursive from the curriculum was a loss, but not one that we should fight so vociferously against, not that cursive is bad or utterly useless.

    1. Follow the links. You'll see that the NYT article was the tip of the iceberg.

  2. You are not an educator. You work with other people of your generation, i.e. other people that grew up being forced to learn cursive, so you use it and see it a lot where you are.

    As a teacher - specifically a special educator - I see exactly how harmful the drilling of old-fashioned skills can be to kids who struggle enough learning the things that are actually important for them to function in society. Cursive is romantic, but drilling students to perfect an archaic form of handwriting when they will simply be less likely to even hand-write in the first place once they leave school is objectively a waste of time.

    However, teaching cursive does not equal teaching handwriting. I agree with the importance of teaching kids to use a pen and paper. The simple truth though is that 21st century schooling involves much less writing on paper than it used to.

    There is ROOM for cursive in school, but I think that demanding it from everyone is much more in line with your assembly-line metaphor (which is a very common one, I notice, among people that don't actually work in a school) than giving kids the freedom to perfect the skills that they will be more likely to use.

    1. I 100% agree that cursive should not be drilled in to people. It should be taught and then let practicality determine what kids do.

      That said Ms. Trubek's argument against cursive as written in the Times piece, is a weak one.

  3. I see cursive as a fine-motor skill, and having fine-motor skills is useful in many places.