Chapter 6: Manners

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 6: Manners

The subject of manners is really a subdivision of the general subject of esthetics. Judgments about manners are made by applying the principles of esthetic excellence to the field of human relationships and personal conduct. Good manners are modes of behavior that are fitting and appropriate to a particular situation; bad manners are modes of behavior that are out of place in the same situation. The evaluation of fitness within a specific context is clearly an esthetic process.

At first it might seem that the study of manners is a matter of minor importance, hardly meriting treatment on a par with such major themes as intellectual life, work, and political organization. While there are books of etiquette which new brides and others may consult, manners are seldom the subject of serious social analysis by contemporary scholars. The study of manners is regarded not as a significant part of formal courses of instruction, but as entirely incidental to the program of most schools and colleges. What is there to study, it may be asked, when manners are nothing but arbitrary conventions, customs that have been developed largely as a result of historical accident? Surely there can be no truth or falsity, no right or wrong, about manners, no better or worse to call for analysis and to invite inquiry? Are not manners at the most a topic for anthropological description, and have not anthropologists shown that customs vary from society to society and from group to group in bewildering complexity, permitting no universal normative judgments?

Closer scrutiny suggests that manners are not as superficial as the viewpoint above would indicate, and that -- rightly received -- they are of great significance in democracy and education. Fundamentally manners are symbolic forms, which point to meanings beyond themselves. It is these meanings, not the forms of conduct in themselves, which are important, for they reflect the ideals and the spirit of a culture. Manners are a kind of language, a "language of the act," which often conveys meanings more effectively than can words. The crucial significance of linguistic skill is generally acknowledged. It clearly follows that the study of manners, one of the most powerful and commonly used kinds of language, is of considerable importance. Good manners express and help to conserve sound social values; bad manners manifest social decay and hasten the disintegration of civilization. No analysis of the good life and of the good society can be satisfactory without a consideration of the system of manners, which is an outward sign of inward spirit and purpose.

Manners ought, then, to be a subject of major concern in education. Instruction in manners and customs should be one of the essential parts of the curriculum. While homes are often particularly well fitted to provide such instruction, schools share in this responsibility, supplementing, correcting, and affording intellectual reinforcement for the teaching of manners in homes. In some cultures the principles of social conduct have been the chief subject of instruction in formal education. The best example is the long-enduring and highly stable classical Chinese civilization, where the Sages’ writings, which were the source books for instruction, dealt for the most part and in great detail with the behavior appropriate to various persons, positions, and situations. Consideration of examples such as this may help to dispel the prejudice against the study of manners within the formal curriculum, by showing that people in other well-developed and successful cultures have considered the refinement of interpersonal relationships the central objective of education.

The present unhappy condition of mankind is not unrelated to the neglect of education in manners. The makers of modern industrial civilization have been preoccupied with the conquest of nature and with the advancement of knowledge and not with the patient and exacting inculcation of right habits in human relationships. Compared to the inhabitants of certain other cultures and times, most people today, with all their knowledge and power, are unskilled in the fine arts of personal and interpersonal conduct. Moderns have largely failed to see that technical mastery and intellectual opulence are a curse instead of a blessing in the absence of a system of mature social relationships mediated by a thoroughly learned code of manners. The relative neglect of manners in contemporary education is evidence of the dominant concern for understanding and control as compared with the patient weaving and preservation of the social fabric.

The world is, of course, not to be saved from its present discords and estrangements by the teaching of certain codes of conduct. Manners are all too often regarded in this fashion, simply as external acts to be learned and automatically performed. The important factors are the personal attitudes and social meanings of which the manners are the outward signs. Proper education in manners consists of teaching right relationships through the act-language by which these relationships are symbolized.

From a democratic standpoint, manners and education in manners are likely to appear suspect because of their usual association with aristocratic societies. The term "manners’’ is commonly thought to refer to the etiquette of the drawing room and hence to have pertinence only to the "upper classes." In aristocratic societies ordinary people tend to be thought of as unrefined and as needing manners only when they enter into relationships with "high-class" people. There is ample reason for democratic suspicion of manners, since customary codes of behavior are by nature traditional and conservative. In the long struggle for human freedom and equality the status quo had to be challenged, and with it the system of symbolic acts which helped to sustain it. The commoners who pressed their claims against kings and nobles could hardly be expected to regard with favor the ceremonials that expressed their own subordination. The French revolutionists were notoriously unmannerly in relation to their royal opponents, and the various communist revolutions have made a clean sweep of feudalistic and capitalistic patterns of behavior.

The rejection of aristocracy, whether by a democracy, by communism, or by some other collectivist system, does not, however, entail opposition to manners as such, but only to aristocratic manners. Every society needs symbols that embody its shared values. Every culture requires a reasonably stable set of customary acts to express its corporate spirit. The decline and the neglect of manners -- the absence of any clear code of conduct -- are evidence of confusion about values and the loss of common ideals. When aristocracy gives way to some other stable social form, aristocratic manners are replaced by a system of symbolic acts that express the character of the new society. Fascists and communists have definite and striking ritual systems, which differ sharply from those of the older societies that they displaced.

Democracies, too, have behavior codes which express democratic intentions. The fact that there is relatively so little concern for manners in modern American society is not a consequence of democratic commitment but a sign of uncertainty and indecision concerning our values. Contemporary democratic culture is ceremonially impoverished. We do not possess a rich and secure tradition of symbolic acts which remind us of the faith we live by and which give body to the meanings we share.

What sort of manners do belong to a democratic society? What code of behavior should Americans teach their children? In answer, it should be granted at the outset that there is no one right pattern of manners for democracy. As indicated earlier, manners are a language. It is characteristic of language that many different symbolic systems can be used to express roughly the same world of meanings. To be sure, the meanings expressed by French, German, Japanese, Russian, and English are never identical; there is an inescapable element of untranslatability in every language. Still, this fact of linguistic singularity does not negate the general principle that there are many possible ways of symbolizing the same reality. In regard to the language of manners, it follows that there is no single code of customary conduct that expresses the democratic spirit. It is not the external act that should be the matter of concern, but the idea that it conveys.

Thus, there is room for endless invention and variation in the modes of behavior appropriate in a democracy. There is no fixed and inflexible code, deduced from democratic principles, which all who are faithful to democracy must observe and which should be taught in all homes and schools. Creative experimentation and individual or group variations in manners are in order, provided only that each pattern is designed to represent democratic meanings. Assuming that this proviso is satisfied, wide latitude in manner systems is desirable, because of the resulting greater interest and esthetic richness and the encouragement of freedom and individuality instead of sheer conformity.

Manners are not, then, simply arbitrary conventions, but are subject to normative judgments in the light of democratic ideals. If certain democratic values are presupposed, there will be corresponding appropriate ceremonial forms to express them. Furthermore, the manners characteristic of a democracy of desire will be quite different from those proper to a democracy of worth. In the former there is a constant tension between anarchistic individualism and collectivist pressures to conform, since the will and the wish are sovereign, and the basic problem is to effect a tolerable adjustment of competing wants. The two fundamental meanings to be represented in a democracy of desire are self-will and majority rule. The behavior appropriate to self-will is self-expression: doing what one wants to do, being emancipated from the restraints and represssions of old-fashioned times, acting the way one feels. The resulting "modern" manners appear to the adherents of more traditional views as "unmannerly" and the essence of rudeness.

Along with these manners of self-expression -- and limiting them -- are those that reflect majority rule. Their primary principle is "appearing to stay within the law," giving the impression of complying with the essential regulations for preserving public peace and order, looking innocent, not getting caught in an antisocial act. The function of such manners is opposite to the function of the manners of self-expression. They provide self-concealment instead of self-display. They signalize conformity to social demands -- not, however, for the sake of common values, but in order that one may be left free to pursue his own ways. Such manners are a shield against criticism and interference by others. They are a "shell" or a "front," behind which one can live his own life undisturbed.

In such a democracy, manners are instruments of egocentricity. They constitute an ingenious and endlessly various complex of acts that enable a person to do and to get the most of what he wants without letting his avarice show and without getting a reputation that will close off or diminish his supply of gratifications. They enable one to cheat in marriage, or on examinations, or in business, or on income taxes, all the while appearing to be a decent, patriotic, even God-fearing person who, like all sensible people, wants only his share of the good things of life and would never do any harm to anybody.

Quite different is the rationale for manners in a democracy of worth, where customs and ceremonies are designed to express commitment to universal humane values. They are an outward sign of inward devotion to what is true, just, and appropriate to each occasion. The approved actions are calculated neither to express nor to conceal persons, but to celebrate and dramatize what is good. Such behavior lends grace to a person, and in a sense it serves as a mantle of honor to redeem his own dishonor, but these benefits are incidental and derivative rather than the primary objectives of conduct. Manners are thus modes of service, instead of ways of taking advantage. They reflect the intention of giving, not of getting. They are symbols and instruments not of power but of appreciation, compassion, and concern.

In a democracy of worth the destruction of traditional social symbols, which has taken place so widely in modern society, would be halted. Meaningful customs cannot be created overnight, nor can their symbolic power be assured by fiat. Well-tested codes of conduct provide an important living link with the past. Respect for such customs is a vital source of social continuity, security, and even productivity.

However, this respect is not for tradition as such, but only as a proven hearer of values. Authentic democracy therefore requires not only a principle of cultural conservation but also of criticism of customary behavior. Inherited codes of conduct often stand in the way of needed improvements. They may have been appropriate under earlier social circumstances which the tide of events has drastically changed. Hence, new codes adequate to the new occasions of modern life must be devised, and ways must be invented for improving the process of creating meaningful social symbols. As suggested earlier, the mass media can play a decisive part in this process. Given the rapidly changing character of modern industrial civilization, it is also necessary to shift the emphasis in manners away from the external forms (which may have to be modified as the conditions of life shift) to the democratic meanings that they express.

To sum up: Modern young people need to be taught manners: not the code of the emancipated ego, nor the pattern of conformity to the will of the majority, but the action-language of democracy, with due respect for worthy traditions from the past and determined criticism of unworthy ones. Their instruction should emphasize, not the overt acts in themselves, since these may soon become obsolete, but the fundamental democratic principles and ideals which the acts serve to dramatize.

It is not feasible to offer here a detailed and comprehensive analysis of a system of manners expressing the values of democracy. It must suffice to give several illustrations of situations to which the question of appropriate conduct in a democracy of worth is relevant.

Consider first manners of speech. These are governed by the fundamental principles of consideration for the word and for other people and the will to create community by reciprocal communication. These root principles may be developed more specifically in such corollary principles as the following:

The speaker should have respect -- even reverence -- for the language he is privileged to use. The most important rule of manners in speech is to use language with regard for its proper dignity and worth, and not thoughtlessly, carelessly, or cheaply. Language bears the personality of the speaker, and when inferior words are spoken, personality is degraded, both in the one who utters them and in those who hear them. Speaking is properly an art, and spoken words ought to be the loving handiwork of an artist. No true artist creates objects that do not command his admiration and affection. So, too, should a person’s speaking be a creating and an offering of something worthy of high regard.

It is astonishing to hear even people of high achievement and excellent reputation use mean and foul language on many occasions, as though such effusions had no real significance, being mere sounds which are dispersed as soon as they are said. This habit actually reveals a basic disrespect for language and for the ideal values of which words are the vehicles. Human beings have a duty to respect words as bearers of life, and hence to use only words that symbolize what is true and right.

Speech should be ready but not continuous. It is desirable to be alert and sensitive to the need to engage in conversation. One should be able to talk freely and easily, without awkward pauses and agonized struggle for words. In general, silence is not golden -- at least not the empty silence where two or more people confronting one another lack either the ability or the concern to employ language to create a shared experience. On the other hand, there are occasions when silence between companions is desirable, when the uttering of words would break an unspeakable communion. Readiness in speech simply means the ability to speak easily when appropriate, and otherwise to remain silent. Compulsive talkers are not well mannered. Some people have the habit and feel the obligation to maintain a steady stream of conversation whenever they are not alone. Proper speech has a rhythmic quality, a pattern of ebb and flow, of refreshing pauses to consolidate ideas, to reflect on what has been said, and to prepare well for the next utterances. Continuous talking in any event is ruled out on the grounds of respect for language, since a steady stream of utterances can hardly be carefully enough considered and artfully enough fashioned to make it worthy of high regard. Language, like money under inflationary conditions, loses its value as a medium of exchange when issued in excessive quantity and without regard for the real assets underlying it.

Speech should be appropriate to the occasion. It is bad form to have a "line" which one recites with minor variations to all and sundry. Such speech is fostered by those who believe in self-expression as a major use of language. Good speaking manners manifest sensitivity and flexibility, so that what is said may be true and relevant to circumstances. This does not mean that the content of speech should be compromised in the interest of expediency, but simply that it should serve truth and right as they pertain to the particular event.

Talking should be with others and not to them or at them. It should be in the mode of dialogue, not monologue. This is true even of public speaking, where audible response from the audience is not possible. Address should still be in such a manner as to invite and expect response and not only reception and acceptance. Those who use language to express themselves -- rather than to communicate something of value to others -- are not concerned with either the situation in which they speak or the persons to whom they speak.

If true communication is to take place, it is evident that speech must occur in proper order. Each speaker must wait his turn. The proper order is not always or even usually one of regular sequence and of "equal time." Proper order depends upon the inner logic of the conversation and the potential contributions of the participants. To apprehend the right order is not easy. It requires awareness by each party of the developing pattern of the conversation as a whole and progressive evaluations of the place of each person in the common enterprise. Talking is an art, but not an art of the individual creator; it is a social art, requiring the ability to work with others in a cooperative creative venture.

Those for whom speech is a tool of desire can have scant concern for proper order. For them, the only propriety is that of adjusting to the strivings of others, so that each gets a reasonably satisfying share of self-assertion. Truly decorous conversation is founded on the assumption that the purpose of speaking is not to serve anyone’s interests but to bring to light the good and the true, that all may better cherish and serve it. With such a goal no one competes with others for a place in the conversation, nor rudely interrupts, nor despairs of "getting a word in edgewise." Each awaits the right time to speak, speaks in the light of the whole and for the sake of all, and defers to others when he senses that a fitting moment for their contribution has come.

Well-mannered speaking conforms to accepted conventions of linguistic usage. There are rules of grammar, syntax, and pronunciation which govern correct speech in a given time and society. To follow these conventions faithfully is evidence of respect both for language and for those to whom it is directed. Grammar is, as it were, the skeletal structure of speech. To violate it is to destroy the integrity and articulation of the symbolic system. Hence, careful instruction in proper grammatical forms should be an important constituent of the educational program.

These principles suggest some of the criteria for judging manners of speaking. Americans are particularly in need of giving heed to such ideals. As compared with some other peoples -- notably the English and the French -- Americans are flagrantly careless with words. To remedy this condition the art of conversation needs to be more assiduously and thoughtfully cultivated in homes and in schools. A greater concern and respect for elegance of style and for power in the spoken word should be encouraged. Fascination and delight are the appropriate attitudes toward the incalculably rich treasury of linguistic forms. One of the most serious losses in the modern activity-centered education, which to a considerable extent has taken the place of the classical linguistic curriculum, has been the decline in concern for refined speech. Words are the most powerful bearers of life and thought. Only if young people learn to employ language gracefully and with discrimination can they hope to enter into the full measure of their humane patrimony.

Next consider manners in eating. One should eat so as to show mastery over appetite rather than subservience to appetite. Man is like the lower animals in having to eat to live; he should not be like them in his manner of eating. All animals eat and drink to satisfy hunger and thirst, but in man these activities may be transformed into bearers of meaning. Through the power of reason they are suffused with significance. They take on a symbolic character. Man does not merely eat; he eats significantly.

In accordance with this principle, eating should be done in an orderly, controlled manner. One should not eat ravenously, devouring food in response to the imperious urgings of hunger, but with a restraint that indicates that the person, not the food, is in command of the situation. Moreover, the physical evidences of eating should be minimized.

While enjoyment of good food is certainly commendable, it is not good manners to rivet one’s attention upon the food, even when one is very hungry. The meal is ideally an occasion for communion with other people, and it is to this consummation that the activity of eating should be directed. Partaking of food provides signal opportunities to symbolize concern for the welfare of others, through offering food to one’s companions, sensitivity to their needs and feelings, and mutual enjoyment of the fruits of the earth. Thus, interest and attention ought to be concentrated not on what is being eaten, no matter how attractive it may be, but upon the people with whom the occasion is shared. Even when a person eats alone, he should practice centering his thoughts upon the relationships of worth which the energies of life support and not upon the food and drink themselves. Fascinated absorption with the process of ingestion is appropriate for the dog with his bone or the infant on the mother’s breast, but not for mature persons. Instruction in manners that sustain the habits of detachment, control, and social sensitivity in eating are part of the long and never-completed task of weaning.

One further application of the central principle is the rule that in general food should be handled by implements and not directly by hand or mouth. This practice is dictated in part by hygienic considerations, since the hands are used for many other purposes and may carry sources of infection. The more basic reason is that the use of tools -- a unique human capability -- helps to make eating a truly human activity. It lifts the human being from the animal level of direct contact with the objects of consumption. Knives, forks, and spoons permit greater finesse in the handling of food than is possible by tearing, grasping, or sucking. They also leave the hands free and clean for other distinctively human functions.

Good manners in play follow four main principles. Of first importance is fidelity to the rules of the game. Play is a mannered, disciplined human activity, in which success depends upon scrupulous adherence to various formal premises. Breaking the rules for one’s own gain or making one’s own rules is cause for exclusion from play. The first rule of the game is fair play, and the canons of fairness are predetermined by common agreement. The basic code of manners for any given game is thus contained in the definition or constitution of that game.

The second principle is enthusiasm, seriousness, wholeheartedness. It is bad manners to play perfunctorily, absentmindedly, or listlessly. If one cannot play with vigor and singlemindedness, he should not play at all. The whole point of a game is energetic pursuit of a short-range objective within the framework of a given set of rules. The spirit of play depends upon such concentration of effort. It is unfair to those with whom one plays to undertake the game in a distracted and divided frame of mind, for the spirit of the game is a consequence of the common dedication of the players to the pursuit at hand.

This enthusiasm for the playing should be coupled with an attitude of detachment about the results. One should play hard and with the aim of winning, but should also accept success and failure in competition with equally good grace. Good sportsmen take both gains and losses with equanimity, as part of the game. It is bad playing manners to react to losses with ill temper or dejection. For the true sportsman every contest is a new beginning: he carries no burdens of earlier defeat and wears no garlands of prior victory; he plays each game solely for itself, as if there were no other.

Good manners in play presuppose loyalty to partners and respect for opponents. In team play it is the effectiveness of the team, and not individual performance, that counts most. Thus, each player must learn to subordinate his personal ambition to the success of the organization of which he is a part. He must cultivate sensitivity to the reactions of the others and concern for the best utilization of their peculiar abilities. Respect for opponents is made manifest by evident appreciation of and admiration for their achievements and by scrupulous concern for fair play.

All of these principles of good manners in play comport best with a philosophy of life guided by devotion to worth, rather than with an acquisitive philosophy. The good player loses himself in the game. He is faithful to its rules and willingly submits to their yoke. While at play he is wholeheartedly dedicated to the activity in and for itself and for what it does for him. He is indifferent to success or failure, which so wholly dominate acquisitive pursuits, and he knows the secret of finding the good life through losing it in concern for comrades and in duly honoring competitors.

Finally, consider the manner of teacher-pupil relationships. In reaction against the authoritarian formalism of classical education, modern educational progressives have advocated a relationship of essential equality between teacher and student. They regard teachers as partners in inquiry with their students, the main difference being the greater experience of the former, because of which they can serve as "resource persons" in the learning process. The corresponding appropriate manners are those of friends and colleagues. This egalitarian position grows out of the view that knowledge is simply an instrument to serve human interests and that there are no criteria of value beyond those of human satisfaction. With such a view, the function of the teacher is to help the students solve their problems and meet their needs.

The manners appropriate for teachers and students in a democracy of worth are neither those of the classical authoritarian school, where it is presupposed that the schoolmaster knows the truth and is expected to inculcate it, nor those of the progressive school, which is built on the principle that truth is by definition what solves human problems. A school in a democracy of worth is founded on the premise that there are values of truth and right, not of human determination, to be sought and served, and that teachers, though never fully in possession of these values, are the appointed custodians and mediators of them to the young. The office of the teacher is therefore an exalted one, and the manners of teachers and students should fittingly symbolize that exaltation. The teacher should be regarded with honor and shown deference by his students, not because of any personal superiority or privilege, but as a mark of devotion to the matters of worth that he in his official capacity represents. The teacher should exercise authority and the students render obedience, never absolutely and unquestioningly, nor in the spirit of personal command and submission, but always with regard to evidence and for the sake of what is right.

The principles illustrated in the foregoing examples may be summarized and integrated by the statement of certain general ideals of character from which good manners spring. The most fundamental of these ideals is respect for other persons. The cardinal characteristic of a well-mannered person is respectfulness, to any and every other person under all circumstances. This respect cannot be based on what a person actually is or does, for many people are not really respectable most of the time, and nobody is really respectable all of the time. Democratic respect springs rather from devotion to the good of which every person is potentially capable. From this respect follows considerateness for the uniqueness and individuality of each person and concern that everyone be himself and not molded according to the will and desire of anyone else.

Good manners also depend on self-respect. Actually self-respect underlies respect for others, since one’s own being is the source of knowledge of personal worth and of human potentiality. One who has no faith or hope in and for himself cannot have a positive outlook on other people. A well-mannered person has the sense of dignity, the poise, and the confidence born of a vivid consciousness of his privilege in participating in the human venture. Bad manners are symptoms of an inability to accept oneself, resulting in various attempts either to escape existence ("crawling into one’s shell," getting lost in the crowd) or to prove one’s power and importance (self-assertion, exhibitionism, aggressiveness).

Respect for self and for others produces gentleness. People with good manners are "gentlefolk." Their relationships are based on persuasion rather than on force. They live as reasonable people, who appeal to the understanding and consent of free agents rather than to the sanctions of superior power. In aristocratic societies the gentleman is defined as a person of high social position, one born into the "right" family. Gentility in a democracy has nothing to do with social status, but depends only on the considerate, patient, tender, and reasonable quality of character. Every person in a democracy can and ought to become a gentleman.

Proper manners are evidence of refinement of character. A refined person is no longer crude; that is, he is no longer in the state of nature. He is not barbarous, but civilized. He has achieved rational control of brute impulses. He has finesse, is trained, has become disciplined. In the broadest sense, refinement is the fundamental goal of all education.

Another character trait implicit in good manners is modesty, or humility. This quality comes from knowing one’s own limitations and having a just appreciation of one’s place in the whole scheme of human relationships. The modest person avoids extravagance in speech and action. He has a sense of proportion and balance. Above all, he has a lively awareness of the significance of other persons and the ability to articulate his activities constructively with theirs.

Refinement and humility beget patience. The ill-mannered person cannot endure delay and frustration in satisfying his demands. He is stimulated by success, but dejected and irritated by failure. The well-mannered person seeks to understand a situation, with due consideration for the conflicting interests of others, and then endeavors to act in accordance with what is possible and just. He can suffer the defeat of his private plans because the meaning of his life is contained not in them but in his commitment to the good, which is neither made nor justified by him.

Obedience is a further character trait needed for appropriate conduct. Proper human relationships rest not only on respect for persons but also on respect for the orders of authority which differentiated social existence requires. In a democracy these structures are quite different from those in nondemocratic societies, but they are nonetheless essential, and willing, intelligent observance of them is requisite to right behavior. Good manners are incompatible with the spirit of autonomy. They grow from due recognition of necessary functional differences in a complex society and from acceptance of the just requirements of membership in it. Manners are the symbols of allegiance to the approved principles of the social establishment.

Obedience is not to be construed as including compliance with unjust social orders. Good manners are usually defined in relation to the existing conventions of society. From the standpoint of a democracy of worth this conception is inadmissible. Signifying loyalty to an unjust system, conventionally regarded as good manners, from a more fundamental view is bad manners. Concern for manners should never undermine necessary social criticism.

Finally, right manners are an expression of sincerity. They reveal the person. Perhaps the most widespread abuse of manners is their use as a shield to hide behind. It is commonly supposed that one of the main functions of social customs is to give people an acceptable appearance, regardless of the real person behind the appearance. Education in manners is then tantamount to teaching techniques of deception. Conduct that is designed merely to put up a good front is ill-mannered, no matter how correct it may be by conventional standards, for it is in effect a lie. Good manners are a true report of intended loyalties. This does not exclude manners that make a person appear better than he is. There is nothing wrong with "putting one’s best foot forward," provided it is really one’s own foot, and provided taking the step is a sign of a genuine commitment to become the person thus represented. Sincerity of manner is honesty in the disclosure of personal aspirations.