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Can Courses on Civility Stem the Tide of Bullying in our Schools?

Civility and Ethics Training: Does it Really Matter?

I recently read about Malcolm Smith, a New Hampshire Professor, who says he's been examining changes in kids' behavior for three decades. According to Professor Smith, courses on civility in elementary school could help reduce bullying.  Professor Smith says his work has centered on issues of meanness, bullying, and incivility. Smith believes young people can be taught how to be nice.  "You can teach empathy in nine weeks, one hour a week, and significantly improve a child's empathy,” Smith says. “Just like you can teach science or math, we ought to make it part of every school's curriculum."  

Professor Smith claims one of America's founding fathers can teach people today about reducing bullying among children.  Smith says the importance of getting along was noted by leaders in the 1700's.  "Benjamin Franklin taught at the first public high school and the first opening of the first school,” says Smith. “Franklin said, ‘the purpose of the high school shall be to teach civility, because without civility democracy will fail.’"

Smith says some children may not recognize their behavior as meanness.  He says self-centeredness is a problem among some young people, though children may not see it.  "Kids who spent enormous amounts of time with technology are not able, we're finding, to read body language,” explained Smith. “So, they don't really know what other kids are feeling.  They're not able to read the signs and there's just sort of a perfect storm going on."  

To say Professor Smith is naïve is an understatement. Sure, you can teach civility just like any other subject matter including ethics. However, my thirty-plus years of teaching these subjects has convinced me it is a far cry from teaching and students learning the lesson. Moreover, there is a big difference between knowing what the right thing to do is and actually doing it.

Civility, like ethical behavior, is a skill that must be cultivated over time and with practice. It becomes a habit – a way of life – and ultimately leads to happiness and a life of fulfillment, as the ancient Greeks knew. To say you can teach empathy in nine weeks is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Young children would have to encounter situations where “walking in another person’s shoes” is the issue at hand. To be empathetic means to first realize your actions have consequences. To be empathetic requires understanding the underlying ethical tenet of fairness and justice.

Civility must start in the home. If a kid is taught civility in school and then goes home and observes her parents doing things that are in their self-interests and without due consideration of others, then the civility lesson will not be learned. If a kid goes to school and is taunted or bullied, she will start to question why she should be civil to those students and, perhaps, in general.

If a kid goes on line and sees examples of bullying, and even ones that glorify it, on social media or You Tube, then the lesson that is learned is others do not play by the same rules so why should I? If a kid goes to the movies and sees gratuitous acts of unkindness and selfish behavior (on the Internet as well), that will have a much more powerful influence than nine weeks of instruction.

If the schools, want to make a difference, they have to start with the parents, not the kids. Starting with the kids is like putting the cart before the horse. Parents are not innately attuned to issues of ethics and civility. Many are of the “me” generation and pursue non-ethical values such as money, wealth, and fame rather than leading a life of excellence. And, they hardly serve as role models for their kids.

Parents need to be educated about the damages that uncivil behavior, such as bullying and cyber-bullying, can have. It is a crucial element of civility. Schools, with the support of school districts, should develop a program of “mandatory” orientation for parents and they should learn the rules of the school with regard to basic respect of teachers, civility toward others, and developing characteristic traits of ethical behavior. They should be asked to discuss these issues in the home with their kids. Then, teaching kids about empathy might make a difference.

Another founding father and the third president of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, said:  “A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 23, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: