Civics and Civility in Our Time—January, 2019

All societies, whether they are towns, cities or nations, must have a foundation of agreed-upon norms if they wish to function. Often, these customs are informal. As an interesting experiment, the next time you get on an elevator, try turning to face the others on the elevator rather than orienting yourself so you can stare at the door. Talk about uncomfortable! Why? There is certainly no law that dictates that “all people in an elevator shall stand facing the door of that elevator.” However, in the United States one social norm dictates that it is rude to stare at people we do not know. This norm leads to a quiet and forward-facing crowd in most any elevator in the country. Similarly, most people older than two years old use silverware to eat. We do this for a variety of reasons, but it is also a social norm. To do otherwise would be “uncivilized”.

The word “civil” comes from the Latin root “civilus,” which means “befitting a citizen.” The word “civics” comes from the similar root of “civicus,” meaning “pertaining to a citizen.” You may recall Robert Fulghum’s thoughts concerning good citizenship. Fulghum’s classic “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” articulated some basic truths regarding how society works. His list included:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup—they all die. So do we.
  • Remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all—LOOK.

Raymond School District teaches civics within our schools, both formally and informally; we have rules, as well as traditions, which the students rely upon in order to help them govern their behavior. These may range from the trivial (this is the Senior hall) to the critical (don’t pull the fire alarm unless there is a fire).

When it comes to formal civics education, all Raymond High School graduates must pass a civics test to prove they know the foundational principles of government such as separation of powers, checks and balances and the importance of voting. We believe that an educated citizenry is critical to maintaining our representative democracy. When we speak of civics and civility, we are really talking about the expectation that those who live in a given society will know and act according to the rules of that society.

But what happens when those norms break down?

When I read or listen to the news, I sometimes worry that the adults have forgotten some of the informal and formal norms of our society. There are those in our country who seem to have decided that anyone who disagrees with their particular viewpoints is not a “real” American, or perhaps even an enemy. This increasing tribalism may be the result of social media, selective listening, confirmation bias or any number of other challenges. However, if we allow these differences to define us, our country will be the poorer for it and our children will suffer.

It is incumbent on the adults of this generation to teach our children both civics and civility. We must impress upon them that the “great experiment” of our country will continue so long as we continue to support a belief in those principles that led to its creation. These include both rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They must understand that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable and that we have in common is stronger than what divides us.

Abraham Lincoln, while attempting to unify the nation, once stated: “If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted.”

Or, as Robert Fulghum put it, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” That’s not a bad lesson for kindergarteners and everybody else.

 

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