Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

So long cursive

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

October 27, 2011

I don’t always agree with new initiatives in education, particularly when they involve scrapping fundamental skills under the theory that new technology has made them obsolete. Cursive writing appears to be the next discipline on its way out. Like the ink well and writing slate, an increasing number of schools are taking the position that new devices, like iPads and smart phones, have made longhand obsolete.

More than 40 states no longer require cursive writing to be a part of school curriculum. As justification for the omission, educators cite the lack of available class time. If new subjects are to be added to the curriculum, others need to be dropped. One solution to this dilemma would be to increase the number of days students are in school. U.S. students spend far less time in school than their counterparts in many other countries.

Unfortunately, it appears that instructional time may actually be decreasing. To deal with shrinking budgets, schools in at least 17 states have implemented four-day school weeks.

Were he alive today, one guy who I’m sure would take issue with the elimination of cursive writing was Myron E. Dewing. Dewing served as the Walworth County Clerk from 1857 until he died in office in 1874. I recently ran across his unusual story when I was researching another issue.

According to historian Albert Beckwith, Dewing’s records were “pleasant to look upon for their neat handwriting and their clerical form.” His “bold and business-like hand” was particularly impressive given the fact that he had no fingers. At the age of two, according to the book “Walworth County, Wisconsin,” Dewing lost all of his fingers on both hands after burning them in the embers of a rubbish fire. By 1903, technology had replaced cursive writing, at least as far as official county proceedings were concerned. It appears that the clerk’s office acquired its first typewriter that year and proceedings have not appeared in longhand since.

On the subject of writing, this October marks the 10th anniversary of the column I write on county government. In 2001, Jon Bemis, a reporter for the Lake Geneva Regional News at the time, urged me to write a column, arguing that it was my responsibility to keep residents informed about county government.

As one of the last “muckraking” journalists to cover the county beat, Jon had always done a pretty good job of that himself. To his credit, he never took my word for anything, often filing records requests to find the story behind the story.

Jon never really “guilted” me into writing the column. If nothing else, I figured the weekly space would give me equal time when he took issue with something I did.

My first column, “The five myths of county budgeting,” appeared in the paper on Oct. 26, 2001. The column had an auspicious start. Given the 550 word limit that I had, at the time, I was unable to illustrate a single myth in that first column. Two additional installments were required to get the job done. My word count was eventually increased, and I’ve been writing the column ever since.

I do my best to present a balanced view of the topics I write about. I know I have been successful when I receive sharply-worded e-mails from advocates on both sides of a particular issue accusing me of bias. In addition to informing the public, the discipline of writing a column helps to focus my thoughts about issues facing the county. From time to time, I even learn a few new things, like the Albert Beckwith story of superior penmanship.

My columns tend to focus on changes that are taking place in county government. There have been a lot of them over the past 10 years. New buildings were constructed, departments consolidated and programs restructured. The board, itself, was downsized twice. All of these changes were easy to identify. More difficult to discern, but of greater significance, were changes that took place more gradually during the decade.

One such change is the declining standard of living of many state residents. Two reports recently caught my attention. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that when adjusted for inflation, median household income in Wisconsin declined 14.5 percent between 1999 and 2010. That rate of decline dwarfed the national drop of 8.9 percent in median household income over the same period. At the same time, the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance reported that the percentage of school age children whose family incomes qualify them for free or reduced price lunch has risen from 25.4 percent to 40.5 percent over the past decade.

Statistics like these are alarming. Some of the decline can, undoubtedly, be attributed to the recession. I’m skeptical, however, that real incomes will surpass 1999 levels when we look back at this issue 10 years from now. If this is the case, individuals and governments that have been accustomed to ever-increasing revenues will have to carefully examine their priorities in the decade to come.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.