Idaho lawmaker embarks on cursive crusade

BOISE, Idaho — Both a sentimental and practical appeal is embedded in Rep. Linden Bateman’s crusade to mandate cursive handwriting in Idaho elementary schools.

Developing cursive skills — where the letters of the alphabet are joined in fluid, looping gestures — promotes manual dexterity, boosts reading comprehension and enhances cognitive development, Bateman told the House Education Committee on Tuesday, as he sought support for requiring cursive instruction in the state’s public-school curriculum.

“If we do not teach cursive, the day will come when people will not be able to read cursive,” he said. “Family history study will suffer, genealogical research will suffer and historical research of all kinds will suffer.”

But the Idaho Falls Republican said his effort also reflects an emotional affinity for what he views as a more elegant time in America, a period when men went to ballgames in jackets and ties, where nobody wore jeans or hooded sweat shirts and even the gangsters of his beloved black-and-white Turner Classic Movies doffed fedora hats. Bateman, 72, spent his professional life as a high school history teacher in eastern Idaho, but spoke Tuesday like a botanist might of the struggle to save a rare and vanishing flower.

As cursive goes, he said, so goes the country.

“Nice handwriting projects intelligence and gracefulness and encourages artistic expression,” Bateman said, adding the typed word “is just so sterile, so ‘Blah.’ It just doesn’t have personality.”

Idaho is hardly alone in debating cursive’s merits, in an era when emails and rapid-fire texts sent from electronic devices like smartphones have largely supplanted the long-form letter.

Last year, California, the foundry of American technology companies, opted to keep cursive in its third-grade curriculum, mirroring moves in Georgia and Massachusetts.

Other states, including Indiana, Illinois and Hawaii, have left it as optional for school districts, while Utah, Idaho’s southerly neighbor, is studying the issue.

Why now?

Along with Idaho, they’re among 45 states that are due to adopt national curriculum guidelines, called “Common Core Standards,” come the 2014 school year. Those will require computer keyboarding by the time pupils exit elementary school — but not that kids have cursive instruction.

Currently, Idaho gives flexibility to local school districts to decide whether to teach cursive, said Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath on Tuesday.

For Bateman, a passionate red-headed orator who elicits a good-natured exasperation for those who do not share his passions with equal vigor, such a policy leaves too much to chance. Younger teachers who themselves aren’t versed in cursive will simply let it fall by the wayside, he fears.

“If we’re going to save it, it’s going to take state leadership,” he told Tuesday’s committee. “We are at a crossroads.”

A Mormon who served a mission in Germany five decades ago, Bateman still corresponds with pen pals across the Atlantic, in their language and in cursive. Though Bateman is now rather proud of his flowing script — in committee, he holds up a letter to a constituent dating to 1985 in which his signature is decorated like an eagle — he acknowledges it wasn’t always that way.

“My mother said it looked like a chicken had walked over a page,” Bateman recalls, of his early stabs at writing.

In 1998, his mother, Bernice Patterson Bateman, penned a letter to family reminding them of the importance of civic virtue and doing the right thing. She was 81 and knew her days were waning; she sat down and wrote it the old-fashioned way, so future Batemans would remember her thoughts.

“She didn’t type it,” Bateman said. “She wrote it. She wanted it to be personal.”

Now, Bateman fears the demise of cursive, should it come to pass, would be a sad stand-in for the demise of an age of civility — and the triumph of a culture of casualness and sloppiness.

Bateman said he never foresaw the day when receiving a handwritten letter, with its graceful arcs and swoops, might be considered a “special occasion.”

He writes more than 100 letters annually; most often, he gets a phone call back. People tell him they don’t quite know what else to do.

“It’s like trying to hold the ocean back with a pitchfork,” Bateman acknowledges. “But I’ll try.”

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