Civility and civilization

Jack wrote this in December, 2005:

Hi blogsters:

Taking a breather here and got to thinking about something that happened a few years ago that’s 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 didn’t know he was going to get into a car wreck or have a terrible hangover, so there’s 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.

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.

It was a strange sensation, 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.  But they were universally adamant in that regard after thinking about it.  Even after I pointed out further that slavery existed almost all over the world in one form or another until fairly recently in history….REALLY recently.

But once they’d decided there couldn’t be civilization without civility defined as a respect for the 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.

Smarter kids, those, than I figured on them being.  And perfectly willing to stick by their guns on something they believed in.

Another thing they were adamant about as a prerequisite for civilization was a respect by the government and the citizenry, for human life.  A wisdom and determination that whims wouldn’t rule when it came to robbing individuals of their freedom.  That criminal statutes wouldn’t be jailing people, or killing people this week for behavior that would be legal a year from now.  (We talked about prohibition and the aftermath.  There were booze runners who were jailed during prohibition who weren’t released from prison until 20 years after the repeal of the Amendment).

That town we were in had three prisons.  Two for men and one for women.  Prisons were the main source of employment.  Those kids knew a lot about prisons.  They probably knew more than most adults in the US about what happens in penal institutions because they heard about it from family members who were employed in them.

Because of that, probably, they believed unanimously that prison is a serious matter that we aren’t handling in a way that reflects a respect for human life, for law, for individual freedom, for humanity.  They believed without much argument that we shouldn’t be imprisoning people for victimless crimes.

The bulk of the prisoners in the women prison are there for drug possession and prostitution.  Those youngsters believed in their hearts there ought to be a better means of dealing with such matters in a civilized society.

It took them longer, but these kids 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’.

Thanks to that experience, I believe there’s a lot of hope for this country, once those kids get control of the political processes.  They had a lot more potential wisdom than most adults I’ve encountered in past years.


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