On being ... one's signature

There was an article in last Monday’s Toronto Star about the fact that many schoolchildren aren’t being taught cursive writing any more. The article focused on a local father’s shock when he learned his 14-year-old son couldn’t sign his name. The father discovered this when he noticed his son printing – rather than signing – his name on the signature line of a passport application.

This seemingly off-beat story clearly struck a chord with many, including the paper’s editorial board, who formally commented on it the next day. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if your local paper has written about this topic recently too. Why do I say this? Well, this week I also came across an article about it in the current Costco magazine. (I know what you’re thinking: a Costco magazine? Well, there is one and, to my surprise, it isn’t all ads – there are some actual articles in it.) Though it might be a coincidence, I’ll bet that we have some teachers’ association, or maybe a calligrapher’s group, to thank for alerting media outlets to this issue.

Besides the “news” that cursive is no longer taught, some things in the Star’s article simply gave me a chuckle. For example, it said that in today’s “digitally focused curriculum”, schools are teaching keyboarding rather than cursive writing. When did typing become “keyboarding”? When I was in school we learned to type and if we wanted to use a keyboard, we went to the music room.

The article also mentioned another unforeseen consequence of this education crisis: the impact on cake decorating. That’s right – it could well be that in the future there won’t be any bakers skilled enough to “write graceful messages in continuous icing”. But don’t worry about it just yet – the local culinary institute’s pastry instructors are aware of this issue and they’re now requiring students to practice writing things like Congratulations using a pen and paper before they even touch a pastry bag!

On a more serious note, the issue of whether a passport application might be rejected because the signature was printed rather than signed in cursive writing had the lawyer in me scratching my head. It’s been a long time but I seem to recall learning in law school that a will, for example, could be validly executed by someone simply “signing” an X, so long as that’s the signer’s “mark”. (In other words, Zorro would probably get by with just a Z.)

Then again, I suppose the father featured in the article figured there must be a reason a passport application has a line for one’s signature and a line where you’re supposed to print your name. I suspect that’s just to increase the chances of readers being able to actually read the name – after all, even if you learned cursive, it doesn’t mean your handwriting is legible. (Trust me – though I take care to make my signature legible, if I didn’t type – I mean, keyboard – On being…, most of you wouldn’t be able to read it.) Getting back to signature lines on documents – they probably have more to do with the fact that it’s harder to forge a signature than a printed name. But, as the Star’s editorial noted, thanks to finger prints, retinal scans, and other biometric markers, identifying someone by their signature is well on the way to becoming obsolete.

In the Costco article, education experts made interesting arguments about developmental benefits to learning cursive – things like fine motor skills, attention to detail, and so on. But, as other experts point out, these important skills are also developed through other activities, including keyboarding and even playing video games.

Though all the legal and pedagogic pros and cons are interesting, the thought I found myself coming back to all week was the idea that if students aren’t taught cursive, they’ll miss out on the unique pleasures of writing – and receiving – handwritten notes of thanks, support, condolence and – dare I say it – love. That seems a pity…

But of course, hand written notes aren’t the only way people express their feelings toward others. Indeed, my mother’s signature way of showing gratitude, friendship and love has always been delivery of a loaf of her homemade bread – a gesture I know many people have cherished over the years.

So, as handwriting goes the way of hieroglyphics, I guess we’ll just have to come up with other signature ways of communicating compassion and tenderness. What will yours be?

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


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