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Minding Your Manners

Bruce Logan

On television this week the behaviour of Christchurch children was put up for national examination. We did not do well. Of course, Christchurch is hardly to be blamed. Auckland children would have fared no better. Believe me I know. I visit Auckland regularly.

A few things are worth quoting. The first from George Orwell in 1944. Certainly he is talking of English society but in 1944 we probably reflected England more than any other nation on earth. Orwell said: An imaginary foreign observer would certainly be struck by our gentleness, by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling. And except for well-defined areas in half a dozen big towns there was very little crime or violence.

A values statement from the 1904 Moral Instruction Syllabus (Otago) is enlightening too. It required teachers to foster all of the following by personal example, classroom teaching and school organizations: Kindness to animals, candour, honour, love of home, forgiveness, peace, justice, loyalty and patriotism, respect for law, magnanimity, integrity of purpose, duty, accuracy and painstaking, contentment, benevolence, humanity, cheerfulness, self reliance, self respect, modesty, courage, prudence, zeal and energy. Quite a list!

It is interesting to compare the cultural depth and understanding of the language of this list with the mix of political values, selective and reductionist old fashioned virtue and vagueness in The New Zealand Curriculum Framework current in schools. We have obvious ones, honesty and reliability, respect for others, respect for the law. Then we have the ubiquitous,'tolerance' (rangimarie) the politically loaded, 'fairness.' This is followed by caring or compassion (aroha); what is the difference? And finally the two politically and reductionist version of love your neighbour as yourself; non sexism and non-racism.

Such a confused mix of philosophy, psychology and politics lacks clarity and power. It's a token assent to a token morality. No wonder our kids are confused.

Why do we bother about manners or more accurately why should we bother about manners? If more people displayed good manners and acted civilly-in other words, if standards of behaviour were raised-the incidence of crime would decrease markedly and law enforcement agencies would virtually be out of business. It really is as simple as that. The solution is encapsulated in Burke's marvellous aphorism: 'Manners are more important than laws for upon them in great measure the laws depend.'

If we want to return to a civil society, all of us must practice civility. What has gone wrong can be summed up simply as a 'loss of civility.' A little history seldom hurts. A code of conduct was first compiled in 1595 by French Jesuits. An updated copy fell into the hands of George Washington under the title Rules of Civility. He not only copied them but followed them all his life. At all events he was always cited in the early American Republic as a model of good manners and presidential dignity.

Paul Johnson in The Spectator (15 February 1997) had this to say: We tend to think today that good manners and right morals are entirely separate. But the truth is, they are a continuum. Bad manners and high crime rates are all part of the same disease.

Courtesy lies at the heart of civilization: the pleases, the thank-yous, respect for the aged, opening the door for someone, a warm handshake, a generous gesture, giving up a seat to an older person on the bus and so on. Courtesy has been described as that property of the heart which overlooks the broken gate and draws attention to the garden beyond.

The Rules of Civility offer a framework for behaviour. The essence of the Rules are not so much their content as their emphasis on discipline.

An honest national conversation would be a step forward. Many people now find it embarrassing to talk about religion or morality in public and the traditional vocabulary of moral discourse-virtue, sin, good, bad, right, wrong, moral, wholesome, godly, righteous and sober-have come under acute contemporary suspicion. But it is a suspicion that is the consequence of lack of knowledge. It is not an intelligent and reformed rejection. Their replacement by a preoccupation with rights and the language of the doctrine of self-esteem has not been a step forward.

An average child spends one-fifth of his time at school. Many schoolteachers believe that their efforts to develop moral and spiritual teaching are not supported by families, who are giving their children quite contradictory messages. The family is of prime importance. There has to be a partnership with families, schools and the wider community.

To leave the debate about the moral and cultural future of our children to the morality of deconstruction - of those who have little sense of the sacred or belief in the spiritual dimension to life and who actively decry the existence of or need of God is an abdication of intergenerational responsibility.

New Zealand society would be well served by a resurgence of thoughtful, intellectually sound and articulate public advocacy of Christian principles and values and their application to day to day policy and behaviour. What other coherent framework do we have? One can only wonder why our church leaders are so mute. In the meantime don't look for a seat on a bus full of kids.


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