Special Report: What Happened to John Hancock?


Another attempt to require the teaching of cursive handwriting dies in the Indiana General Assembly. Some school districts still teach the artistic, free-flowing and whimsical style of handwriting but some don't. The demise of cursive handwriting leaves some experts worried that it could have an impact on future generations.

Blended beautifully using quill and ink, 'We hold these truths to be self evident' is the start of one of the most potent, powerful and consequential sentences in American history. We may still hold these truths to be self evident but we the people have evidently changed.

We are now creatures of pixels and posts, texts and tweets.

"You don't see the days of a chalkboard and chalk. They are long gone," said Jackie Kuhn, the director of Language Arts and Literacy for the EVSC. "Everything is digital and interactive for kids."

On this day, Jessica Hopkins' third grade class at Cedar Hall receives a lesson in irony. Standing at the front of the class, she teaches cursive handwriting on a smart board.

"It's not something that takes 20 minutes out of our day," Hopkins said. "It's something that is quick and fast. Here's how to do each letter and then I want you to do it."

Cursive bridges the past to the present but may not span into our future. Only nine states require public schools to teach the poignant penmanship that traces back to the 11th century. Indiana is not on that list and neither are Kentucky or Illinois.

However, Kuhn said cursive isn't forgotten in the EVSC.

"Our focus is really for our students to be able to form letters correctly so their writing is legible but also so they don't get bogged down in how to make a letter that it interferes with what we're really interested in... their thoughts," Kuhn said.

"We're more focused on making sure the students know what the letters are, know what they look like so they can read them," Hopkins said. "That way, if they come across it in a book or the Declaration of Independence, they can read it one day."

It's personality on paper.

And some experts worry future generations will lose the sense of self that comes from cursive, not to mention it's benefits in fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. However, it's hard to argue against technology and how it's increasingly being used in the classroom.

"Our third graders who learn cursive are also required in the standards to publish, produce a piece of writing using technology," Kuhn said. "Not only are we expecting them to write and read cursive but we're also expecting them to be able to keyboard and produce writing using technology."

"Seeing them come in as second graders, the excitement of wanting to write in cursive," Hopkins said. "I think that if I didn't teach them how to write in cursive, they would have found a way to learn it regardless of whether I taught it or not. It's almost like a right of passage."

Graduation is also a right of passage. As a robot winds it's way down the track, North High School juniors Christian Mills and Sam Dugan are on the fast track toward engineering degrees.
"Cursive writing? I learned cursive writing in the second grade," Mills said. "I write my name in cursive but that's really all I use it for now."

The lab partners write more code than they do papers. For them, cursive is about as relevant as the floppy disk.

"My parents don't ever write in cursive either," Mills said. "My grandparents do sometimes on occasion when they write me a card or something."

"It's kind of a fancy form of writing," Dugan said. "They both spell out words. It's just your preference, I guess."

The power of the written word has a greater purpose in Civic Center Room 231. The County Recorder's Office, a treasure trove of the county's history, contains deeds and property records dating back to the 1800s.

"A deed, at this time in this person's life, was probably the most asset they had," said Z Tuley, the Vanderburgh County Recorder. "You have to protect that."

Protect, Tuley did. For three weeks last fall, Tuley watched and listened as the county's history was digitally preserved one page at a time. Many of those pages were written in cursive.

"I've heard that they discussed eliminating teaching cursive," Tuley said. "If they do that, I don't know how far in the future it will be before someone isn't able to read this document."

Culture is what we create. But this document drafted on July 4th, 1776 will always be revered as one of our culture's greatest creations. It has 56 signatures affixed but none of which is more prominent or elegant as the first: John Hancock.

But whatever happened to John Hancock? Historians say the man known for his penmanship wrote so little about himself. But little would Mr. Hancock know that future generations would write so little like him too.

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