May 24, 2023

Rector’s eNews – 24 May 2023

/ Newsletters

A good school in combination with good parents should create a regard for scholarship and co-curricular activities as well as a variety of attributes and skills and, very significantly, how to behave in the society of others. I am not suggesting that we, in our Michaelhouse community, always get this right and our boys are, by no means, exemplary in all their actions. And yet, on the whole, they know through being instructed, through discussion or through osmosis to stand when an adult enters a room, to greet people they may pass, to ask visitors if they need assistance, to help the elderly who may need support up a flight of stairs, to show respect to those who merit it and to engage spontaneously and cheerfully with others in conversation. On the whole, Michaelhouse boys look others in the eye and that is a good starting point for dialogue, discussion and debate. What we call good manners allows for a sense of ease with others and the contrast between those people in our broader society who have good manners and those who don’t is immediately apparent.

I will not inflict A.C.Grayling on you every week, but he, too, has views on manners and I quote from another short essay, some of which is quite amusing, which he has written on this subject.

“In a world of atrocities and conflicts, suicide bombings, assassinations, wars, torture, genocide and ethnic cleansing, where can one find a basis for morality? The answer is surprisingly simple though easily forgotten. It lies in the minor transactions of ordinary life; for, given that morality fundamentally concerns how we treat each other, its starting point is: good manners.

Manners have a bad press among cynics, who variously describe them as the most acceptable form of hypocrisy or, at best, a fictitious form of benevolence. They have even been dismissed on the grounds that only unattractive people need them (this, predictably, was said by Evelyn Waugh, most famous perhaps for his novel, Brideshead Revisited, who added in explanation, “the pretty can get away with anything”).

Such views are profoundly mistaken. Manners are central to the true morality; they are the lubricant of social relations, the sweetener of personal intercourse, and the softener of conflict. Without them society itself would be impossible. Answers to questions about how a complex, pluralistic community should cope with the stresses of internal difference and competition have to put civility at their heart, because nothing else certainly not the blunt instrument of law…………. can do nearly as well.

It is a mistake to confuse manners with etiquette. Knowing the rituals of decorum and precedence, and what cutlery to use in what order at dinner …………are all very well in their way, but such niceties too readily collapse into affectation…… Such things are irrelevant beside the real point of manners, which is – quite simply – to treat others with consideration. And that might often involve forgetting etiquette, especially when the latter is used as a device to snub and exclude. It was once well said that rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength, but when the mere appearance of manners is used as a form of rudeness too, they become their own negation.

Etiquette had its origins in bringing pleasantness to the necessities of communal living. Reformers of behaviour at table, for example, managed to bring about the relative peace and democracy of today’s dinner hour from what was once a ravening, every-man-for-himself event where meat was torn from carcasses by hand, bones were tossed to the floor, spitting and various unmentionable activities took place right there at the board as eating and drinking proceeded – a species of gustatory mayhem, premised on the imperative of quantity and haste. And what was characteristic of the table was even more so of the street, once as much a public lavatory as a path between destinations.

Castiglione, a prominent Renaissance courtier and author, was one of the tamers of such grossness, advising his contemporaries how to comport themselves better, for example by not scratching their lice in public. But he recognized that, although etiquette is an expression of manners, it is not only not the whole of manners, but neither necessary to them nor a substitute for them. For he too saw that the point of manners is, fundamentally, consideration, and his pleasing descriptions of the ideal Renaissance individual – a rounded personality possessing taste and a well-informed mind, habituated to graceful treatment of others based on thoughtfulness about their needs and interests – offers a paradigm of what the well-mannered person should be”.

As I said earlier, there will be a number of occasions when our boys/your sons behave as many other teenagers do world-wide and do not display good manners, but we would hope that, generally speaking, they develop in this area over time and the onus lies on us as teachers and you as parents to set an example, to correct them, to bring them into line and to have high expectations of them in this area. Once you lose your good manners, you will never get them back; they are gone forever.

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