Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Manners do matter


Manners maketh the man, was the motto of William of Wykham, the 14th century Archbishop of Winchester.

It’s a distinctly old-fashioned phrase, but many social ills are caused by the decline of civility.

We see this most clearly in schools, where disrespect for authority is rife. It’s a world-wide trend associated with modernity and the breakdown of traditional authority.


American teachers in 1940 listed the seven most serious problems in school as follows: talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in corridors, cutting in line, not wearing school uniforms, and dropping litter.

In 1990 a teacher survey received these answers: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.


One of Britain’s top private schools has put old-fashioned courtesy on its curriculum. Pupils at Wellington College, Berkshire, are told to touch the brim of their hats to passing teachers and refer to men as “sir” and women as “ma’am”. Boys are required to open car doors for women or elderly visitors and stand up when an adult enters a room.

The rules were devised after fears children were growing up without respect. These values should primarily be taught by parents, but stable two-parent households are becoming increasingly rare.

According to census figures in South Africa, 52% of urban black African families are headed by a single parent.

It is 24% for white families, 30% for coloureds and 7% for Indians. Deaths due to HIV/Aids have led to 41% of black households being headed by grandparents. It’s all very sad, especially since traditional African custom is rich in elaborate greetings and courtesies, and respect for the elders.

The mission-educated generation of ANC leaders all had fine manners, as exemplified in Nelson Mandela’s old world courtesy. Contrast this with the increasing uncouthness of political attacks by people who should know better.

Jacob Zuma says repeatedly that his opponents are snakes, and Gauteng Education MEC Angie Motshekga refers to ANC defectors as dogs.

They hardly have the moral high ground to rein in ANC Youth President Julius Malema. Fortunately, parliamentary conventions apply in the legislature, restraining the worst excesses even though passions sometimes run high.

Our Speaker has ruled as unparliamentary words like “Hou jou bek”, “nice doggy”, “racist”, “Heil Hitler”, “clowns and idiots”, “murderer”, “klonkie”, “liar”, “coward”, and ‘you are consciously misleading the house”.

Teachers should also be role models for pupils. A dress code for teachers is important as it can raise the whole tone at a school.

Good manners are more than just saying please and thank you. They are a way of showing respect to others, and it starts with self-respect.

The great gift of individual freedom can only endure with a degree of self-control, which is the capacity to defer instinctual gratification.


As Edward Burke put it, people “are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”. This requires the rebuilding of families with the assistance of churches, and synagogues, and all manner of self-help organisations that make for a healthy civil society.

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