You have to hand it to John Hancock, whose signature on the Declaration of Independence was so distinctive, so over-the-top, that his name itself became another word for signature.
So we wish him a happy birthday today, were Hancock around to turn 276 years old.
Frankly, it’s a good thing he’s not. Despite years of service and sacrifice in the cause of American liberty, he remains best-known for writing with a particular flourish — and even that legacy is becoming an historical curiosity.
Today, school curricula in most states have no formal requirements for instruction in cursive, and its use has been falling off for years.
Even students who once mastered the rigors of the Palmer Method, with its fastidious attention to the height of letters and the length of loops, haven’t always carried those skills into adulthood. Consider Jacob Lew who, at 57, is as much a baby boomer as they get. Yet the nominee for secretary of the Treasury has attracted attention for a signature that’s devolved into resembling a stretched-out Slinky.
Form follows function
Mr. Palmer’s penmanship has gone by the wayside — remember the weird Q that looked like a 2? — with cursive no longer necessarily being taught as a separate lesson, said Paul Beverage, K-12 literacy content lead for the Minneapolis School District. More often, he said, handwriting is embedded in other instruction and taught in a font that more resembles printing because that’s the lettering that students will most often see in books and online.
“The urgency of making sure students are achieving good reading, writing and math skills and meeting state standards is one of the reasons there has been this shift,” Beverage said. “Digital literacy is becoming more and more important, with students being connected to the keyboard.”
When curricula include writing, he added, the focus is not as much on the ability to form beautiful letters as on the ability to form well-reasoned thoughts.
Not all keyboards
The Kansas State Board of Education made headlines in December when it debated a newly adopted curriculum standard that emphasized keyboard skills. Backers of cursive mounted a campaign to save handwriting, and they did — sort of — with the board voting unanimously to encourage public schools to teach cursive, although not requiring it.
But the typeface, it is a-changin’.
Take the Beloit College Mindset List that’s issued each year. Its original purpose was to caution faculty about using outdated references that may mean nothing to incoming freshmen, but it’s since become a humbling nudge for the general populace. The No. 1 item on the list for the class of 2014: “Few in the class know how to write in cursive.” (Also: Few have ever seen a carousel of Kodachrome slides.)
The issue is bound up in technology. While one blogger in the “cursive is dead” camp granted that learning penmanship may help students retain knowledge, she then downplayed that benefit in a world full of iPhones — should you need to look up what Kodachrome means.
What’s in a name?
But back to Mr. Hancock and his flourishes.
Were he alive today, his signature likely wouldn’t fit on most “sign here” lines, not to mention how infrequently he’d need to dip his quill. Today, people pay bills online. Many businesses no longer accept checks. Autopens, stamps and scanners all produce legal signatures. And anyone who’s tried to sign a small screen with a tethered stylus at the checkout knows that penmanship is the first casualty of commerce.
So what counts as a signature?
“I think the whole idea of signatures is a little antiquated,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, noting that “John Hancocks” haven’t always been necessary, such as when a king’s wax seal would signal a document’s authenticity. In law today, notaries need only attest to knowing the person who signs a legal document such as an affidavit, he said, no matter how illegible that signature might be.
“You know who had one of the most illegible signatures ever?” Freeman asked. “John F. Kennedy.”
He knows because when he was a boy and his father, Orville Freeman, was U.S. agriculture secretary, the two ended up in Kennedy’s office and emerged with a signed baseball.
John Hancock would have needed a softball.