Yesterday, December 10, was Emily Dickinson’s 184th birthday. The introverted, reclusive poet was honored by Prairie Lights Bookstore with a picture and a copy of her signature posted on their website. She had a beautiful, flowing penmanship, and I was reminded that most of her handwritten manuscripts are available online. They are beautiful. But this isn’t about Emily Dickinson. It’s about something her signature reminded me of, something that happened just the other day.
I ran across my father’s signature at the end of an old legal form. Dad’s signature, to his son at least, was always a thing of beauty. In my eyes it was neat, immediately recognizable, and expressive of his character. It came out of a world where cursive handwriting and a recognizable, dignified signature were respected. Unfortunately, that attitude seems to be fading away.
I didn’t realize it until recently, but most students today get very limited instruction or practice in cursive. Not sure how I missed that. The evidence is overwhelming. In my work, I often find myself asking people for a signature. Often, the result is an indecipherable mess. I’m probably the last person who should complain because my own signature is less than beautiful, but it is, at least, immediately recognizable. Surprisingly, the more legible signatures today often turn out to be a printed form of the name, something that I once would have denied was a “signature.”
Again, that printed name shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. More and more, schools are accepting printing as adequate. Increased use of computers and the accompanying development of keyboarding skills seem to make handwriting less necessary. To push back a little, I’d like to build an argument for requiring more handwriting instruction, but it’s getting difficult.
As a practical argument for teaching cursive, I do remember that the process of taking handwritten notes in class was a major part of the learning process for me. Copying the notes over in a more legible form added another layer of understanding. I don’t know the reason why it helped, but I have seen research supporting that idea. Apparently, writing cursive notes really does aide the learning process. Fewer and fewer people seem to do it though.
These days I tend to compose most on the keyboard, but over the years I have experimented with different methods of getting words down. Years ago I wrote a long manuscript that evolved into about 500 typed pages. Some of the first drafts were typed, some were handwritten, some were even recorded on tape when I would be driving on long trips. All, of course, needed multiple drafts. But the handwritten ones could be guaranteed closer to final form from the very beginning.
According to several sources, The College Board has researched and reported on an apparent advantage of cursive. Students who write in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT score slightly higher than those who print. They don’t give a conclusive explanation but suggest that the efficiency of writing in cursive allows the student to focus on turning thoughts into intelligible expression. It certainly works for me.
On the other hand, maybe it’s best to give up on the practicality of learning cursive. Sometimes people are more apt to learn difficult skills if they think of them as being impractical or fun. Appreciating cursive writing as an art form might get it a little more play. For instance, calligraphy, the creation of fancy, decorative handwriting, is considered by many to be a beautiful art form. Many think of it as a pleasant hobby that they learn just for the fun of it. As a natural outgrowth of that, lots of people like to create personal, hand made, cards for their friends. The design and assembly of these cards is an art in itself, and certainly the ability to write a message in an attractive cursive form is part of creating a beautiful note. It’s being a useful skill they can apply to personal and social notes is only secondary. The whole process strikes me as reminiscent of an earlier and more gentile era. And that seems like explanation enough.
Realistically, I don’t expect much to change. We enjoy an educational system that is capable of changing to an emphasis on math and sciences when society deems that necessary, but there is a price to pay: a corresponding loss of time for the arts. We enjoy the many advantages of the computer era, but here too there is a price to pay: so much of the warmth of the human touch is disappearing from our daily lives. I wonder if we couldn’t reclaim something that used to be almost universally admired. Saying it out loud sounds almost silly, but in an age where people go out of their way to be individual, unique even, wouldn’t it be kind of nice to see some appreciation for something so simple as a real signature?