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Harvard University Jumps on the Civility Bandwagon

Harvard Asks Freshmen to Sign a “Kindness Pledge”

Harvard University officials are taking an unusual, even controversial, step to encourage civility and camaraderie on campus. They are asking freshmen to sign what’s being called a kindness pledge, which states that students will uphold the values of the institution and “sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” Anyone who signs also commits to making Harvard a place where “the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.”

The fact is administrators at Harvard are pressuring the Class of 2015 to do something no other student class has ever been asked to do in 375 years: Sign a civility pledge. The “Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge” was presented to students before an opening convocation last month. The message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in Harvard Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility. The “Pledge” idea seems a bit odd to me. Is Harvard saying its students have not acted civilly up until now? Has Harvard ignored civic virtue in its teachings?

Many seem to believe that the notion of civility arose after the shooting at the January 8, 2011 event sponsored by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to meet with her constituents. That is not true. Congresswomen Giffords shooting was the trigger that brought to light the angst many of us feel about the growing lack of civility in society.

So, just what is civility? There is no commonly-accepted definition. I have previously blogged about this issue and gave my perception that civility encompasses four behavioral characteristics: (1) having good manners; (2) not being rude to others; (3) showing respect for others; and (4) tolerating differences whether they are religion-based, nationality, sexual orientation, or political viewpoints.

The fact is civility has long been in our national consciousness, albeit buried deep beneath the surface. It certainly began by the time, at age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.  They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  The first rule is: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

Let me go back to Harvard. Not everyone is thrilled with the civility pledge. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis wrote on his blog that the pledge “is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent.” He explained that signing a pledge goes against the idea that students should have complete freedom of thought. The pledge is a commitment to view the world a certain way and uphold certain values – which flies in the face of many ideals espoused by the pursuit of higher education.

“It is a promise to control one's thoughts,” he wrote. “A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.” He also noted that Harvard has rejected pledges and oaths throughout its history.

Now I’m really confused. Does former dean Lewis mean somehow intellectual achievement cannot exist alongside civility? Does he mean a student that has a thirst for knowledge and achievement can do so by stepping over others to gain that knowledge or disregarding their interests? Wouldn’t that negate the quest for intellectual honesty just as would one’s unethical behavior in the pursuit of learning?

Dean Lewis repeats the mistake of all too many educators in society that the “rightness” of one’s behavior and decision-making should be based on whatever one judges to be ethical in a particular situation, a form of ethical relativism.” Philosophers will tell you there are core ethical values such as honesty, trustworthiness, fairness and respect, to name a few, that should guide the actions of an ethical person. It is a short leap to go from that to say civility is a basic ethical value in our society, and it means something similar to what I have already pointed out.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 10, 2011