It is something relegated to parents to teach children at the dinner table if and when they eat together. Manners are a feel good thing, a way to be nice to people, or maybe even a “social lubricant” that helps one get ahead but hardly an essential part of education.
If we accept the premise that education is the mere imparting of knowledge to children, then manners are indeed superfluous and really serve no purpose.
However, if we believe that education involves the formation of the whole character in addition to imparting knowledge, then we must enthusiastically endorse manners as something that has an enormous educational importance.
Indeed, when we say in Spanish that a person is “educado,” or literally “educated,” it is not to say he is a Ph.D. candidate. Rather it means he is well mannered. Similar distinctions were made in the Portuguese and Italian languages which show how these traditional societies definitely made the connection. The teaching of manners was a very important part of the whole education of a child.
And so manners and education definitely do mix.
However, it would be quite premature to recommend a mandated Manners 101 course in public schools or turn an edition of Manners for Dummies into a standard textbook.
This is because manners cannot be seen as a kind of a feel-good set of rules for being nice-to-everyone or a politically correct framework for tolerating just about anything. There are those who are all too ready to spin manners into, for example, “evolution’s solution to easing the stresses of communal living.”
If manners are to be taught, it must be within their proper framework. We must go beyond the rules of etiquette and into the very nature of manners themselves.
The Nature of Manners
What are manners? There are many good definitions: unenforced standards of conduct, passed down codes for human behavior, norms set by society to facilitate the common good and the concrete practice of charity toward our neighbor.
Manners are such that they become so ingrained in a person that they come to characterize that person. A lady is a term used for a woman who follows proper manners; a gentleman is the male equivalent. By these acts, we exteriorize something much more profound.
Manners are, therefore, mere exterior manifestations for a set of values and principles inside the individual and society. In themselves, they are sterile and artificial. If we reduce manners to fork positioning or social formulae, we reduce them to irrelevance. They become a kind of social reenactment without a real link to our modern day world.
Thus, if we are to reestablished manners and their proper role in education, we must reconnect with the values and principles that gave rise to them…and we must confront and disconnect with a culture that lives in denial of these very principles.
Desire for Good Manners
No one will deny that manners have declined. News polls reflect the opinion of most Americans that we have becoming ruder and more brutal in our treatment of others. We do not need pollsters to tell us this; we experience in our daily lives.
However, it is not from a lack of desire on the part of Americans to live in a more civil society. It often is not even from a lack of trying. Even the best of parents experience almost insurmountable difficulties in imparting manners to children. Everyone would certainly like to see more civility and manners.
No, we are uncivil because we are immersed in a culture that undermines those principles that give manners meaning. We are uncivil because in the sixties, we ourselves jettisoned what we considered the excess baggage of manners and civility so we could do our own thing.
Since then, we are engaged in what many have called a Cultural War – a battle much more important than politics and economics in the history of our nation. It is what Edmund Burke called that “most important of all revolutions, a revolution in sentiments, manners and moral opinions.”
In this struggle for our nation’s future, manners thus have a very important role. Our education system must necessarily be involved.
However, manners will only come back when youth are aware of the philosophical and metaphysical premises that support a civil society. To that effect, three such premises might be mentioned.
Beyond Locke: Radical Individualism
The first is a rejection of the radical individualism of our culture. Manners like tradition can only exist in a social context. We must direct them toward someone else.
We Americans tend to be social contract individualists. We take pride in our self-esteem and self-sufficiency. However, we are now seeing a radical individualism that goes beyond Hobbes or Locke.
From our earliest youth, we were taught that each one is the center of the world. We do not think in social terms anymore. We do not think in terms of generations. Rather everything is oriented toward instant gratification of our desires. The only important thing is each one’s comfort and happiness. We simply do not care what other people think or do.
Sometimes we see people in the streets who present themselves without any consideration of how they look or offend people. Bad manners abound in the dirty ragged clothes, multiple piercing and undisciplined ways of speaking or eating seen everywhere. Individuals are oblivious to the existence of another. The message is: I do my own thing, and I simply don’t care if others are repulsed or offended by what I say or do. I am a world unto myself.
It must be admitted that the way our society is organized does not help in our social relationships. Everything in our society is done to minimize human contact. We are taught to bypass people by visiting ATMs, paying at the pump and using the omnipresent self-service option. The message is: I just take care of everything myself. I don’t need people. I don’t need manners. I am sufficient unto myself.
The result of this radical individualism is that we lose notions of charity toward others. We are reduced to the smallness of our own existence. It is an attitude that condemns the individual to a regime of self-imposed mediocrity.
Individuality not Individualism
Man was made to live, talk and act in society. By living in society, he enlarges his horizons and develops his individuality to its fullest.
Manners are enhanced by individuality, the development of a person’s full potential in society. However, manners are destroyed by individualism, whereby a person enthrones himself as the standard of all things.
Thus, education should open the eyes of youth to think beyond themselves. They should be taught that greatness exist in sacrifice and consideration for others. Education should propose to students the heroes and archetypes that embody these ideas. They should also be taught sound philosophical social principles about the nature of society, the common good and our role inside society.
Much to the secularists’ chagrin, that is why Christian education is especially suited to this purpose since Christian charity teaches us to overcome our natural self-centeredness and practice the love of neighbor for the love of God.
In a culture like this, manners spring up naturally and almost spontaneously. It is not something forced. Manners are a consequence of this education. It is a logic behavior that comes from reaching out beyond ourselves.
The Rejection of Crass Egalitarianism
The second premise that supports a civil society is a rejection of crass egalitarianism.
While all men are equal in their essence and entitled to certain fundamental rights, among them the right to life, men are unequal in their accidents and naturally tend to form different forms of treatment and consideration.
That is why it is an oxymoron to speak of socialist or communist manners. Where all men or comrades are the same, there is no reason to treat others differently. Where no one should excel, excellence is not rewarded or given special consideration.
Manners can only survive again in a social context and in an atmosphere where distinctions are made, where excellence is rewarded and difference are noted and even enjoyed.
One reason why we have an uncivil society is because it is a society of cultural egalitarianism. We are asked not to make distinctions. One of the things that makes political correctness almost tragically comical is that it destroys distinctions. It is a kind of egalitarian tyranny where nobody can acknowledge problems or inferiority anymore. Failure is now called “deferred success.” Everyone is somehow “challenged” and woe to the well-mannered person who tries to show compassion or condescendence.
We are asked not to recognize superiority. So often, our situation comedies portray characters that glory in the fact that they ridicule or humiliate others. We see the Bart Simpson syndrome where parents are made to look like fools in the eyes of their children. All authority is seen as clownish and not worthy of respect.
Manners are the habit of thinking about others; the act of adapting oneself to the individual person. They are naturally opposed to crass egalitarianism. They presuppose distinctions. They call upon us to honor those who are superior and excellent with special treatment. At the same time, we show compassion and consideration for that which is inferior or weak.
In this context, education must play a key role. Education has always recognized excellence. It has always reprimanded mediocrity. It is anti-egalitarian. And so if we instill honor and respect for different people in different circumstances in the child, he will naturally become, to borrow from the Spanish, “educado.” He will naturally adopt manners.
Instilling a Clear Idea of Purpose
Finally, the third premise for a return to civil society is that youth must be instilled with the clear idea of purpose to their lives. They must be given ideals greater than themselves.
There is nothing more terrifying to the soul of a youth than the conclusion that life has no purpose.
And yet so often, youth have been betrayed and given exactly this message by a secularist establishment. Anything that smacks of metaphysics or transcendence is labeled religious and therefore put on the index of forbidden subjects.
Many have disparaged intelligent design as creationism lite. But what is the philosophy of neo-Darwinism but existentialism heavy?
So many youth are taught that their lives are the mere result of randomness, mutation and adaptation without a clear purpose for life. Our culture teaches that life is a party, a beach – a mere succession of experiences without a real essence of its own.
The passion of youth is made for great causes; youth need a clear purpose. To quote the French writer Paul Claudel, “Youth was not made for pleasure, but for heroism.”
In the past, education instilled a clear idea about life and its purpose. Indeed, Great Books programs have this in mind by calling to mind the great ideas and purposes of times past.
Youth have always hungered for great ideals. It is not something from Mars. It is as true today as in the times of Plato.
An example that comes to mind is our military. Inflamed with the ideals of “honor, courage and commitment,” young people in our military find purpose in their lives and develop corresponding manners that belie their interior convictions almost as a secondary consideration.
This can be seen in many traditional colleges dedicated to the great idea that truth exists that have sprung up over the last decades. They manage to instill this sense of purpose in their students. It is always accompanied by an accentuated sense of manners and civility.
Part of the Cultural War
Thus, we must teach manners with principles. Manners and education are inextricably linked. Our problem is not to separate the two but to unite them once again by reconnecting with the values and principles long lost.
Indeed, this matter of manners is catapulted beyond the mere reestablishment of manners and civility. It is part of Burke’s “most important of all revolutions” – that of sentiments, manners and moral opinions. It enters into the question of the cultural war that so polarizes our society.
These are the themes that are deciding the future of our country today. Americans have a hunger for such topics and part of the conservative reaction today is because so many have been mugged by the terrible reality of a society that lives in denial of these principles and values. They have crystallized into a reaction because of things like manners and education.
Other topics like Supreme Court justices and Social Security are indeed important. However, culture is where policy and reality meet in the daily lives of our citizens. This is where the real battle is taking place and we ignore these themes to our own peril.
The above essay is based on a talk given at the Foundations of Education Conference at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas on November 4, 2005.