BALTIMORE—Darius Riley displays the concentration of a tightrope walker as he fastens his eyes on the lined paper in front of him and grips his No. 2 yellow pencil down to its point to make his most perfect curly letters.
"I would rather do it in print because it is faster," Darius, a fifth-grader at Highlandtown Elementary School near Patterson Park, said of his cursive writing. Even his typing would probably be quicker, he says.
Darius may be in the last generation of students to be taught cursive as states begin dropping the subject in favor of spending time on mastering math, science and other skills.
Cursive is not included in the so-called common core standards, which will govern teaching and lesson plans in 46 states beginning next year, leaving states free to shift away from a subject taught for centuries. Hawaii and Indiana have already dropped it.
With technology pervasive in society and fewer documents that need a cursive signature, some educators say there is no need to bother kids with the tedious, time-consuming lessons on cursive. They argue that we soon may no longer need to sign our names on legal documents or credit card receipts; a scan of our eyeballs or a thumbprint may be all that is needed to identify us.
But there's more than just necessity that should be considered, historians say.
"Cursive writing is a matter of discipline and training in our culture. Is it necessary to the future of sustaining our culture and our understanding of our past? I believe it is," said Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. He believes children should learn it "not only as a means of sustaining communication with the past, but also an exercise in maintaining small motor control."
And he's the first to admit: "As one who has very messy handwriting and nearly illegible script, I have always preferred typing." The issue has touched off a national debate and pitted educators against each other. Frank Chiki, head of the elementary section of the National Council of Teachers of English, said one day it may not be necessary to teach students printing, typing and cursive.
"Maybe we won't need to sign our names in the future," he said.
He points to declining sales of hardback books as people buy reading material on e-readers and iPads. "Is there a possibility that writing will go away? It is kind of like the physical book," he said: Its useful life may be on the decline.
Already the need for legible writing and signatures has diminished. Pharmacists, who have fussed for years that many physicians' penmanship on prescriptions is impossible to read, don't see handwritten prescriptions much anymore, said Brian Schumer, a pharmacist at Tuxedo Pharmacy in Greenspring Station.
"Everything is going electronic. Prescriptions are entered into a PalmPilot" and then transferred to a pharmacy, allowing for less chance of mistakes, Schumer said.
Even the courts are less insistent on cursive signatures.
Joel Sher, a Baltimore bankruptcy lawyer, said that when he files papers in federal court, he no longer needs to sign his name because it is all done electronically. Some state courts still require signatures, he said, but they will soon move to electronic filings as well.
But he said, "I still need clients to sign legal documents," including contracts and some letters. "Count me among the old-fashioned who think you should learn a foreign language, you should learn cursive and you should learn typing."
Not only are historical documents more accessible to scholars who can read cursive, but there's an important lesson in the discipline it takes to create a beautiful handwritten letter or document, historians said.
Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator at the Maryland Historical Society, said that in past centuries, a person's handwriting was seen as a reflection of who they were as a person and how they presented themselves.
"George Washington cultivated a particular signature. It is a very considered signature. That became part of his identity," she said. And good penmanship has always been viewed as a sign of being well-educated, and an indication that the person was self-disciplined. Architects, she said, still have a distinctive style of writing, and scientists must have clear, precise writing when they work in labs.
"It would be a tragic loss to not teach penmanship," she said.