Whatever happens to a bill requiring Louisiana schoolchildren to recite part of the Declaration of Independence every day, they soon will be able to read it in manuscript.
Right now, many of them cannot, even though they may be jake with 18th-century style and syntax. The problem is that the Founding Fathers were a literate bunch in a hurry and not in the habit of writing in block letters. For Louisiana kids unschooled in cursive script, the declaration might as well have been written in Greek.
Not that they are thereby deprived. They can call up the printed text of Thomas Jefferson’s elegant phrases on their smartphones lickety-split.
Henceforth, nevertheless, legislators have decreed that cursive writing be taught in third grade and employed through high school graduation. For us geezers, it came as quite a shock that penning joined-up words is nowadays something of a lost art.
It was partly to give students the ability to read historic documents that legislators decided to restore it. The Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution were cited as suitable texts for edification and reading pleasure.
A mastery of cursive will not suffice for the Magna Carta, however, for reasons readily apparent from its title. It was written in Latin, and we are unlikely to see a bill in the Legislature mandating the study of semi-deponent verbs and ablative absolutes.
Magna Carta, even in print and English translation, is not always easy to grasp. On reading that “Inquests of novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor and darrein presentment shall be taken only in their proper county court,” for instance, students will hope there won’t be a test.
By comparison, the Declaration of Independence is a breeze. State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, filed the bill requiring kids in grades four through six to recite part of it daily. It was necessary, she said, because polls showed such an ignorance of government that many people don’t even know it has three branches.
But reciting a few words from the declaration, uplifting though they may be, won’t help. All kids need to know about the separation of powers is in the Constitution, which is part of the regular public school curriculum anyway.
Hodges wants kids to chant the section asserting that “all men are created equal,” which black legislators, to put it mildly, found ironic, coming from our slaveholding Founding Fathers.
Adding to the offense were memories of so-called literacy tests during Jim Crow, when a favorite trick to deny black people the vote was to make it contingent on reciting the Declaration of Independence from memory.
The first time the bill came up on the House floor, Hodges felt obliged to shelve it, professing herself “just astonished” at the opposition. But, just as the legislative session entered its final weekend, she brought it up again, and this time, it passed and is now pending before the Senate.
The cursive-writing bill, filed by Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, sailed through. Mizell said cursive was worth teaching because it exercises both the right and the left sides of the brain and will enable children to read old family letters. Right now, she said, the youngsters are denied the blessing of a distinctive signature, which she called an “identity forever,” although, as doctors have long demonstrated, that can be overrated.
“I have people tell me they got a thank-you note and cannot read it,” Mizell said. Still, if you just sent grandma a fountain pen on her birthday, you can probably guess what it says.
The practical advantages of cursive are limited these days. Presumably, writing an essay in a test will go more smoothly with cursive, but evidently, students are managing with the kind of penmanship traditionally regarded as childish.
A letter written in block letters surely will be seen as a sign of an incomplete education, however, and Mizell is probably right to say we are “shortchanging” youngsters by not teaching them cursive, which, after all, is no great trick.
When Mizell’s bill passed, senators were so pleased that students could henceforth read historic documents that they shouted “Vive la France!” and “America!” It seemed like the American Revolution all over again, and the House caught the mood by bringing back the Declaration of Independence.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.