Gilman's Civility War

September 10, 1993

Whenever the "breakdown" of American society comes up for discussion, the causes and effects often cited include drug abuse, crime, the dissolution of the family, violence and homelessness.

For many citizens, these are problems they experience only indirectly, through reports they read in the newspapers or see on television. But if there is one troubling social trend of which most people can claim personal knowledge, it's the rude behavior of others -- from disdainful retail clerks to impatient, horn-blaring drivers to foul-mouthed teen-agers.

Not even the prestigious Gilman School in north Baltimore has been immune to the meanness. Arch Montgomery, the second-year headmaster of the private boys' prep school considered one of the best in the area, says he saw an un-Gilman-like "casualness" toward courteous behavior among the students last year. So he has ordered that the theme this year at Gilman will be civility.

Mr. Montgomery, who also teaches ethics at the school, is probably on the mark when he blames the poor behavior of this generation of students on their Baby Boom parents -- themselves the spoiled products of the wildly affluent, post-World War II era in the United States. Nor did the greed-is-good, I-got-mine-Jack mind-set of the Reagan-Bush years do much to further the cause of civility.

Meanwhile, some Gilman parents have questioned whether this accent on politeness will render their sons unable to deal with the rat race they'll have to enter as adults. These parents might do better to ask how far their kids will get if they lack proper manners. Even the rat race has certain standards of behavior.

"It's silly to think we can solve this widespread social ill of incivility merely by what we're doing at Gilman, but we at least have to try," Mr. Montgomery says. "My main concern is that incivility can get in the way of teaching. First and foremost, we have to restore that respectful free exchange between students and teachers."

Sounds like a great idea. Now if only there were some way to make civility training a required course for everyone who could use it, and not just for Gilman students.

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