As citizens of this great country, we understand that we have a responsibility to thoughtfully and actively participate in our democracy as we work to uphold the values and principles it purports to represent. This is our civic duty. Although we know that these duties are voluntary, that we have a choice about how we might wish to participate, each of us has the good fortune of being able to contribute to the greater good. This may mean exercising our right to vote, staying informed on local, state and national issues or by making a commitment to give service to others.
As a school district, we teach civic responsibility to students in order to create responsible citizens and active participants in our community and our government. In fact, one of the six Robbinsville Ready Skills identifies the characteristics of an informed and involved citizen this way:
In order to be civically and globally aware, students must not only understand the role of government and its impact on local and state communities but also to respect and appreciate different cultures and differences of others that make up the school community and beyond.
As teachers nurture and support students to become informed and involved citizens through the study of government, they also help students to develop as citizens by building experiences that incorporate cross-cultural connections and relationships with others to contemplate and solve problems; encourage opportunities to strengthen independent thought and express opinions respectfully; and design instruction to meet a variety of purposes including understanding and addressing complex issues.
While we can appreciate the value of our civic duties as citizens in a democracy, what about our civil duty? How do we engage in civil behavior that will lead us to operate in good faith and promote civil solutions to problems? According to dictionary.com, the word civility is derived from the Latin root, civilitat which means “relating to public life, befitting a citizen.” It is defined as “the act of showing regard for others.”
The fundamental premise of this definition addresses the value of politeness and good manners. Is it just me or do you, too, often wonder just when—and how—basic good manners became seemingly obsolete? Are you, too, pleasantly surprised when you notice someone opening a door for another person, saying please and thank you to the Starbucks barista, or allowing another car to take the coveted parking spot at the local mall? Sadly, these examples of polite behavior are becoming more and more antiquated.
I could speculate that our hurried and harried world has contributed to the demise of basic manners as we rush from one “important” appointment to the next. Our demanding and stressful schedules surely take a toll and often leave us short-tempered and self-absorbed. Whether we cut another driver off or convey a harsher, more sarcastic tone than we might have actually meant, we know on a deeper level that we are better than this. And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the heat of the moment.
Our addiction to technology has also led us to ignore common courtesy and our compassion for one another. We talk on our cell phones with little regard to others that may be present, we distractedly text over dinner and during a work meeting, or we no longer take the time to greet people as we write an email. Without oversimplifying the problem, when we no longer mind our p’s and q’s, bad habits like these can lead to more serious behaviors (such as bullying and intolerance of others) and contribute to the decline of civility in our society.
Civility, however, encompasses more than being polite and demonstrating good manners. Civility can lead to a healthier and more caring community. But what does this look like beyond practicing good manners? One way might be to practice active listening. Instead of preparing mental counterarguments while issues are being discussed, we can practice developing a sense of curiosity about differing points of view. We can raise questions in ways that seek to understand rather than becoming defensive. When we are in reactive mode, it’s easy to lose perspective and take things personally but when we make a conscious effort to slow down, we are better able to be present and bring our better selves to each situation and interaction.
In the classroom, teachers can begin to teach civility. As they activate student voice through the process of inquiry, choice, and regular discussions, students begin to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the area of study. This, then, can open opportunities for students with differing points of view to appreciate multiple perspectives and to practice civil discourse in a safe and structured environment. Making intentional efforts to take each student’s opinions into account in a dispassionate and nonreactive way leads to a sense of agency which then leads to a strong, resilient and more civil community of learners.
Today we live in a world comprised of more than seven billion people that speak more than seven thousand languages. As we embrace the tenets of our democracy and interact with others on the global stage with increasing frequency, it is incumbent upon us to model for and teach our children to uphold their civic responsibilities and civil duty as though it matters. After all, when we envision the kind of world we want to create for future generations, it does.
Kathie Foster is superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.