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Fostering Civility in Uncivil Times


The above is the title given to a recent speech by President James E. Walker.  In his speech he states: "What is 'civility'?  Scott Peck has written that consciousness is a cornerstone of civility and that to be more civil, human beings have to become ever more conscious of themselves, of other people around them, and of the organizations that relate them together.  And, he went on to say that 'incivility generally arises out of unconsciousness,' meaning that uncivil behavior is many times unintentional and that we 'only become civil through development and learning.'"


Dr. Walker goes on to outline a number of action steps that he feels higher education should take.  They are:


·        Promote civility and understand that it is under attack in America today.

·        Promote technology and its acceptance as a part of the solution.

·        See that our campuses are part and parcel of the larger community around you.

·        Help policy-makers understand the impact your institution has, not only on the economy, but on our society.


If we agree with our President, how best might we go about helping to implement the above action steps?


When Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the Daughters of the American Revolution, he began his address with, "Fellow Immigrants."  He was gently ridiculing those ladies for believing that their heritage gave them any entitlement to privilege.  We have created the longest running democracy in the world and should be very proud for having done so.  However, we also need to pay significantly more attention to how best to encourage our nation's survival.  That survival is linked to civility.  Civility, in turn, is linked to having a populace that behaves in reasoned ways.  As Allan Bloom states: "There are two threats to reason, the opinion that one knows the truth about the most important things and the opinion that there is no truth about them.  Both of these opinions are fatal to philosophy; the first asserts that the quest for the truth is unnecessary, while the second asserts that it is impossible.  The Socratic knowledge of ignorance, which I take to be the beginning point of all philosophy, defines the sensible middle ground between two extremes, the proofs of which demand much more than we know.  Pascal's formula about our knowing too little to be dogmatists and too much to be skeptics perfectly describes our human condition as we really experience it, although men have powerful temptations to obscure it and often find it intolerable" (Bloom, p. 18).


One of the reasons people resist reason is that it is usually the harder path.  It is often easier, at least in the short run, to let emotions and immediate gratification rule our actions.  Delayed gratification requires a belief in a better future prospect.  Not all of us have learned to trust the future.  Also, even if we trust, we also have to be willing to tackle hard tasks.  Comfort is always alluring.  Heidegger warns us that discovery requires courage and resoluteness as we face storms in the ocean of becoming (Bloom, p. 22).


Some of us feel oppressed.  Oppression is common in America, the land of the free, and comes in many forms.  Sexual, employment, religious, marital, age, race, social, economic, emotional---talk to me long enough and we will discover how both of us are oppressed in some important way in our wondrous nation.  African-Americans can make a case for being the most oppressed among the oppressed.  If we are going to find the path to civility, then we must examine oppression's sources and root them out and have them wither in the light of truth and reason.  Oppression will dry up and blow away if we don't let it hide and mask itself in varied forms of ignorance.  It has an ever ready ally in greed and willing advocates who even create imaginative philosophies to support oppression.  Nietzsche warned us that: "Every philosophy is the author's secret confession."  Let us not become the dupes of those that would argue that oppression is a necessary evil or even that it is inevitable. 


The path out of oppression leads to civility.  The guide along that path is reason.  Those who would make the journey must begin to develop their knowledge of how the world really works.  The wisdom that we must develop is as ancient as Lao Tzu and Socrates.  If we use our reason, develop our minds, then we can, like W.E.B. DuBois, find our way on the path despite whatever pitfalls and obstacles of oppression are insidiously and often deliberately placed in our way.  DuBois in his great book The Souls of Black Folk stated that: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.  Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension.  So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil" (p. 139).


So, you read books, you study, you think!  But, some books, many books, are in league with oppression and incivility.  Therefore, you have to do as DuBois did, you have to be careful about what you read just as you have to be careful about who you develop as your friends and careful about the other habits of life that you form.  "Obviously books are used by nations and religions to support their way and to train the young to it.  But that is not the whole story.  Many books, perhaps the most important ones, have an independent status and bring us light from outside our cave, without which we would be blind.  They are frequently the acid which reveals the outlines of abusive power" (Bloom, pp. 26-7).


One of the most condensed forms of writing that you should explore in your effort to be well educated is poetry.  "Poetry is the most powerful form of rhetoric…(the) desire to depict the truth about man and to make other men fulfill that truth is what raises poetry to its greatest heights in the epic and the drama" (Bloom, p. 58).  Although I appreciate that it is difficult to read Shakespeare, the knowledge you can gain from so doing is tremendous.  "What is essentially human is revealed in the extreme, and we understand ourselves better through what we might be.  In a way, the spectators live more truly when they are watching a Shakespearean play than in their daily lives, which are so much determined by the accidents of time and place." (Bloom, p. 60).


"A free man and a good citizen must have a natural harmony between his passions and his knowledge; this is what is meant by a man of taste, and it is he whom we today seem unable to form.  We are aware that a political science which does not grasp the moral phenomena is crude and that an art uninspired by the passion for justice is trivial.  Shakespeare wrote before the separation of these things; we sense that he has both intellectual clarity and vigorous passions and that the two do not undermine each other in him.  If we live with him awhile, perhaps we can recapture the fullness of life and rediscover the way to its lost unity" (Bloom, pp. 62-3).


"The most essential of our freedoms, as men and as liberal democrats, the freedom of our minds, consists in the consciousness of the fundamental alternatives.  The preservation of that consciousness is as important as any new scheme for society.  The alternatives are contained in the writings of the greatest men in the philosophic tradition.  This is not to assert that the last word has been said, but that any serious new word must be based on a profound confrontation with the old ones.  That confrontation has the added salutary effect of destroying our sense of our own worth and giving us higher aspirations" (Bloom, p. 345).




·        We need to become more civil---more understanding, caring, loving of one another.

·        We do this by becoming more aware of ourselves, of others, of the institutions that influence our lives and which often oppress and depress us.

·        We march toward understanding through exploring the wisdom that is available to us in great literature, art, poetry, and the movies that reflect that wisdom.

·        We commit ourselves to the journey knowing that it is difficult but also wondrously beautiful and uplifting.

·        We use guides on our journey, carefully selected guides like Shakespeare, and all along the way we struggle to make it a passionate, joyful, balanced journey of exploration.

·        We make the journey with open minds, aware that absolute truths are rare but that our efforts to find them are still worthy efforts.


Bloom, Allan (1990). Giants and Dwarfs. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.


DuBois, W.E.B. (1969). The Souls of Black Folks. N.Y.: The New American Library.

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