07 February 2009

Universal University

Oxford University occasionally holds “open days” for potential undergraduate students. These days give English secondary school (“college” or “sixth form”) students the chance to see what a day in the life of an Oxford University student is like. The most celebrated of these open days are “access days,” days to encourage students from underrepresented schools to apply to the university. So today, volunteering for a group of teenagers from East London, I was surprised to hear a young woman with the honesty to admit, “I’m not really sure I’m going to uni.”

As it turns out, this young woman has no real idea what she wants to do with her life. She enjoys English and history in schools, but isn’t really sure that she wants to spend the rest of her life on either of these subjects. Instead, she’s thinking of spending at least a year working, travelling to her family home in South America, and taking the time to put serious thought into her vocation. Although it’s an unpopular sentiment for a teenager capable of earning a college degree to express, her uncertainty about university makes perfect sense.

It is easy to forget that the modern university system is exactly that—modern. Traditionally, only those who wanted to go into a field requiring an advanced degree did so: lawyers, doctors, clergy. Even fewer pursued “purely academic” subjects like English or history—those who wanted to teach or research. Everyone else left school and learned a trade. Accountants learned accountancy in a firm, not in a classroom. Clerks started at the bottom and worked their way up, gaining experience as they went.

That system had its perks. It reworded hard work with promotions and bonuses. It promoted company loyalty which, in the long term, encouraged employers to treat their employees with greater respect, as a valuable part of their organization. And it provided people with the means to continue learning on the job. No one really believes that a recent graduate with a degree in finance knows more about business than the man who now works under him who has had the job for twenty years.

So who is to tell the fifteen-year-old girl that she has to go to university? I applaud her responsible, self-knowledgeable decision to take time to find out what it is she really wants to do. I only wish that Western society hadn’t made life without a university degree so difficult for anyone with her level of common sense.

Certainly, there is much to be said for a university education. Knowledge of the liberal arts remains our path to cultural fluency, a part of our political existence as human beings. Many of the obstacles for women, minorities, and people from lower-class economic backgrounds can be surmounted by a university education in a way they once could not—provided those groups have access to a university education. But there is a limit to what one can learn in a classroom. We ought to seriously consider whether so many are best served by spending another three to five years in formal education, or whether they might not be better off finding themselves outside of academia. I sincerely wish the young woman luck as she bravely bucks the system and finds her own path in life.

06 February 2009

What's the Matter with Manners in the Twenty-First Century

A group of adult friends recently asked me to write a short monthly column about etiquette for their school newsletter. I obligingly sat down and turned out a four-line poem about responsible cell phone use. But, in the midst of trying to find a rhyme for "texting" (which I eventually decided against) I had to stop and ask myself: is defining and spreading a code of social conduct really a worthwhile use of my time?

No one really denies that the age of Emily Post is over. Gone are the days when we show each other respect by following the same social code. We are all told to celebrate our differences. We all have our own values and beliefs. No one ought to impose his or her social beliefs on me. "Treat others as you would want to be treated" is the golden rule of moral behavior—although "I can do anything I want, so long as it doesn't harm anyone else" might be a more common variation. It would seem that, in this brave new world, manners are simply obsolete.

Of course, we all realize that the ideas of rude and polite haven't died. A Google search, for all its statistical merit, yields almost one million hits for "so rude." A male coworker who accuses a dieting woman of having an eating disorder. A cellphone goes off during an important meeting. And we find huge, generalized groups who are simply rude by definition: young people, bartenders, Italian tourists, conference attendees, people from Boston, and pregnant women.

Clearly, we all know what rude is. We all know we ought to treat other people as we want to be treated. But we don't. Why? Could it possibly have anything to do with the collapse of manners as a social code?

Aristotle had a brilliant concept of how behavior works. All human action is based on goo d and bad choices. The problem is that we can't, as modern morality seems to expect us to, simply resolve to make all good choices. I can make up my mind in advance not to harm another person, but the real choice comes when, tired and hungry from a long day's works, I have to choose whether to give my seat to the elderly man in the aisle.

Enter Aristotle. Men, he noted, are creatures of good and bad habits. Good habits help us practice making good choices; bad habits help us practice making bad choices. Every time I choose to hold the door, I'm teaching myself patience and empathy. Every time I leave the last cookie for my housemate, I'm teaching myself selflessness and generosity. It really is a brilliant insight—I can't always do the right thing by other people, but I can slowly learn the habit of treating them better with time and practice.

I contend that, historically, manners have served as a system for habituating virtue, getting used to doing the right thing. Sometimes the rules seemed (and often were) arbitrary or silly. Still, if I choose to show consideration in small things, I am developing the habit of showing consideration in great ones. The use of "please" and "thank you" helped me develop a habit of gratitude. When I used the shrimp fork for my shellfish, I was practicing showing respect to my hostess. Even the most obscure points of etiquette force of to think about the ways we behave towards others which, ultimately, forces us to see a little more of their humanity.

Unfortunately, some of the oldest and most revered laws in our code of manners, like the use of the shrimp fork, seem so obsolete we've forgotten what they were for. No one pays any attention to the "no elbows on the table" rule anymore. Few blink when I forget to break my bread into little bits before chomping down. When manners are perceived as obsolete or arbitrary, they no longer serve any purpose at all.

So, we have two choices. We could remind ourselves why manners are important, go back to using them to help ourselves develop habits of consideration and kindness. Or, we could reject them altogether and take up something new.

Of course, if we are going to reject codes of etiquette, we have to accept that we need to think harder about our moral choices. I can't count on being in the habit of saying, "I'm sorry" or "No, thank you"—I have to look the homeless man squarely in the eye and consider whether I owe him an apology for not being able to share with him. Without the habit of respectfully listening to others, I will have to work very hard not to roll my eyes at the upset coworker crying about her third break-up this month. Codes of etiquette really do help us practice being a little more human. Without them, we have to make those hard choices on our own. That is the real challenge of twenty-first century etiquette.

Manners really do matter, or at least moral choices do. I for one plan to stand by etiquette of the old-fashioned kind, building good habits by following an older social code. I need all the practice I can get to truly treat others as I wish to be treated. I just hope that all this practice will make those difficult moral choices a little easier to make and helps me see other people as human beings even at the most trying of times.