Manners Education: Making a Case for Civility

PETER A. JAY

September 12, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The father, writing to his 9-year-old son, tried as countless other parents have to make the difficult point that manners count. But he did it with more energy, persistence and grace than most.

It's easy to scoff at manners, he conceded. They are among the lesser talents, to be sure, and aren't as indispensable for success in life as an educated mind or an honorable spirit. Because knowing how to behave in civilized society involves the mastery of many small skills, it's easy to perceive manners themselves as trivial.

Yet for the most practical of reasons, wrote the father, to see manners that way is a mistake. "However trifling a genteel manner may sound, it is of very great consequence. . . . [It] prepossesses people in your favour, bends them towards you, and makes them wish to like you." The lack of manners, while certainly not criminal, tends to make you appear disagreeable or even ridiculous, and can blight your career.

This advice seems oddly formal and even a little dated, which is perhaps not surprising, as it was written in 1741 by an English aristocrat. It's from an extraordinary 28-year series of personal letters from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, diplomat and man of the world, to his illegitimate son Philip.

The letters are wide-ranging in content and elegant in style. Individually and collectively, they make an intellectually rigorous defense of good manners and civility.

They are irrelevant today, perhaps, in an era in which manners are a joke and civility is an almost incomprehensible concept. But because of the courage and imagination of the new headmaster of the Gilman School, they are just the slightest bit less irrelevant than they were a week ago.

Headmaster Arch Montgomery, tired of the rudeness so pervasive in modern everyday life, decided to take his upper-crusty school and give it a shake this year. If his privileged young charges can learn calculus and chemistry, he concluded, they ought to be able to learn civility too. So he's put it into the school program and plans to push it hard.

As he observed, Gilman kids, like most kids, often don't know when they're being rude. If they screech obscenities on the playground that can be heard in the street, they consider it simply amusing. If they fall asleep while listening to a guest speaker, it's only because they've been working so hard.

Usually kids behave like the adults they know, or whom they watch on television. If Mr. Montgomery can set a higher standard for Gilman students, it will be a remarkable achievement. Probably he won't succeed in any serious and lasting way, because the current is running too hard in the other direction, but the effort alone deserves respect.

It will be interesting to see if the Gilman community backs up the headmaster when the inevitable crunch comes. "Civility" sounds like a wonderful idea right now, and everybody's applauding, but the real test will be when a star athlete, or the child of some Baltimore potentate, runs afoul of the brave new rules of behavior.

Even if it succeeds in checking churlishness and encouraging politeness on the Gilman campus, it's questionable how much impact Mr. Montgomery's experiment will have on the larger society.

The public schools have a much harder time enforcing any standard of civilized behavior, whether it's a modest dress code or a ban on running in the halls, because those who direct them have so little leverage. If disruptive and dangerous students can't be effectively removed from school, what hope does a principal have of correcting those who are only rude?

Public or private, schools filled with the children of a society in which civility isn't valued have little hope of restoring respect for manners. Our friend the Earl of Chesterfield made that point in one of his later letters to young Philip.

"It is from old people's looking upon these things as trifles, or not thinking of them at all, that so many young people are so awkward and so ill-bred. Their parents . . . carelessly comfort themselves, and say that their sons will do like other people's sons; and so they do, that is, commonly very ill. They correct none of the childish, nasty tricks which they get at school . . . so [the children] go on in the practice of them, without ever hearing, or knowing, that they are unbecoming, indecent and shocking."

It's perhaps comforting to note that young people have always been considered unbecoming, indecent and shocking by their elders. I spent four of my least civilized years at Gilman school almost 40 years ago, and neither I nor any of my classmates would have won any Chesterfield awards for our manners.

On the other hand, Chesterfield felt it necessary to advise his son never to peer into his handkerchief after blowing his nose. Fortunately, that isn't reported to be a problem at Gilman.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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