Daily Archives: August 2, 2011

Civility and Civilization

Hi blogsters:

Taking a breather here and got to thinking about something that happened a few years ago that might be worth relating.

During the post-Y2K financial challenges I substitute taught in the public schools for a while.

Those situations often leave the sub in front of a bunch of kids without any obvious means of spending the time. The regular teach, say, didn’t know he was going to get into a car wreck or have a terrible hangover, so there was sometimes no agenda.

One week I found myself in front of several days of classes of high school seniors. Rather than let them use it for a study hall, I decided to get them talking about what they believe in. Try to get them into a mode of defining it and possibly thinking in ways they hadn’t done so before.

One of the days was spent talking about civilization. What it is. What are the characteristics of a civilization, as opposed to merely a complex society or culture with traditional, defined behavioral norms?

From the beginning, every classroom full of kids believed a society couldn’t call itself a civilization if it condoned slavery within it. They continued believing that (after some discussion) even after I pointed out the fact the US allowed slavery until a century and a half ago. Almost every group of humans we dub ‘civilized’ in history had slaves.

Watching those kids absorb, then adopt the realization that by their own definitions the US couldn’t possibly have been a civilization until the end of the Civil War was fascinating. But they were universally adamant about it, even after thinking about it. When I pointed out further that slavery existed almost all over the world in one form or another until fairly recently in history….REALLY recently they gradually decided most of their recent ancestors weren’t civilized..

Once they’d decided there couldn’t be civilization without civility defined as a respect for some degree of freedom of the individual, they hung tight on it. Those kids decided human beings weren’t civilized anywhere until ‘way after a lot of civilizations (by other definitions) had risen and fallen.

Those were smarter kids than I figured on them being. And perfectly willing to stick by their guns on something they believed in.

Over the course of a few days these kids decided they absolutely believed, following a lot of debate, that due process is the foundation of civilization. They believed wars without due process were criminal, that they were the antithesis of civilization because they failed to respect human life enough to follow their own prescriptions and procedures. They believed killing, mayhem are serious matters worthy of reflection, debate, and a profound respect for doing things thoughtfully and exactly according to law. They believed failure to do so is a symptom of a society withdrawing from the condition we call ‘civilization’.

Toward the end some of them must have ratted me out to their parents. I didn’t get many sub-teaching jobs after that.

Old Jules