Universities and the Graciousness of Being

Civility is at the foundation of democratic society, but our educational institutions have lost their manners and the grace of gentility.

I recently had the good fortune to while away a morning on the grounds of Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. The campus architecture exemplifies civility in the sense of good manners—Randolph is, after all, like nearby Hollins and Sweet Briar, a very Southern institution. Even the buildings have good manners. They are modest and unassuming, shy even, as if demanding sole attention was untoward or crass. Roger Scruton describes architectural good manners as a form of neighborliness:

The buildings that go up in our neighborhood matter to us in just the way that our neighbors matter. They demand our attention, and shape our lives. They can overwhelm us or soothe us; they can be an alien presence or a home … Buildings need to fit in, to stand appropriately side by side; they are subject to the rule of good manners just as much as people are.

Elsewhere, Scruton emphasizes the importance of good manners—whether in decorum or construction—to our common life:

In America’s culture manners are of supreme importance, and recognized as the ultimate guarantee of peaceful coexistence … so that people will fit in, not stand out … to ensure that each person is secure within his space, and that the public realm is minimally threatening.

Edward Shils, in The Virtue of Civility, agrees that good manners “are like uniforms and discipline which hide slovenliness, poor taste and unpleasing eccentricity,” in order to “restrict offensiveness” and allow us to dwell alongside others in courtesy and peace.

Just as the pleasant neighborhood emerges from a diverse set of buildings all striving to “fit in” with their neighbors without losing their own particular status, so too manners in ordinary human conduct recognize, preserve, and quietly insist upon what Marion Montgomery termed “the very graciousness of being,” a tacit acknowledgement of the value of the other. The tradition of civility checks our tendency to put ourselves forward at the expense of comity.

Civility in the political sense allows diverse individuals and groups, even when partisan, to pursue the good of all. So important is civility, the moderating of particular interests for the common interest, that “it comprises a pattern and standard of judgment without which the institutions of civil society cannot flourish.” Thus, while civility is not reducible to liberal democracy, civility is a necessary condition of its success, for civility accepts the plurality and irreducibility of human goods without thereby resigning political life to disordered relativism. If we are to be free, then we must accept that the good can be pursued in many ways; if we are to be free and ordered, then we must not accept any and every judgment but rather those proportionate to human flourishing. Civility, then, allows political neighborliness of those not so illiberal as to turn their backs on the common good.

Here I’d suggest that the two forms of civility highlighted by Shils—good manners and civil society—indicate an underlying third sense without which neither good manners nor civil society could be ultimately reasonable, namely, respect for the dignity of others, for their “very graciousness of being.”

The tradition of good manners recognizes, preserves, and insists upon the graciousness of being and dignity of each individual. Good manners recognize that as ends in themselves persons ought to be afforded courtesy. Neither courtesy nor civil society creates this worth but rather they recognize the pre-existing value of personhood, recognized because it is true.

Civility in this third sense means due respect—piety, even—toward citizens of the cosmos, or, as we usually refer to them, persons. Civility is rightly due to persons because they are goods in themselves, and so not merely factical givens but rather more like gifts. To encounter another person is something like receiving a gift, for in such an encounter a good in itself is gratuitously offered for our consideration—the very graciousness of being—and in the face of that gift we owe courtesy and civil society.

The campus architecture of Randolph College and the many colleges like it is a reminder of the role universities played in promoting civility. Today, though, the university has moved away from the idea that each human is a person with dignity that demands respect. In a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Wendell Berry explained his resistance to exclusively utilitarian education, arguing that the “American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is … a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.” A university fails its purpose when in unchecked enthusiasm for technological progress it overlooks “preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity,” and so become “unabashedly utilitarian.” The sort of technological civilization sponsored by the new university is, Berry thinks, fundamentally hostile to civility in all its forms.

The main reason for this, I suggest, is that the utilitarian education of the new university views the cosmos (and its citizens) as brute, factical, as merely given—what Charles Taylor calls the “great disembedding.” The cosmos is mere stuff—indifferent and valueless until it is found useful and assigned a task. Lacking a sense of the gratuity of being, such education lacks also commitment to the worth of being; lacking a sense of the worth of being, such education lacks also commitment to acting only in conformity with the dignity of things; lacking a sense of the dignity of things, such education lacks also commitment to civility and the teaching thereof. If all that is has value only in its use, then nothing is owed any proper respect, let alone the rather quaint respect of modest civility and neighborliness.

It would be thought slightly quaint to suggest that universities exist to form scholars who are also good citizens, and perhaps ludicrous or offensive to add that they should form gentlemen at the same time. This reaction has some justification. Certainly some of the past formation of ladies and gentlemen was genteel and exclusive nonsense. Still, the new university seems to lack civility. Perhaps most glaringly obvious in the sexual norms on campus, incivility extends also to architecture, faculty culture, the lack of genuine intellectual and political diversity, the corporatization of the college (including naming rights for buildings and athletic facilities), cheating as common and accepted, politicization of the curriculum, grade inflation, careerism, and sadly the list goes on. Some of these phenomena reveal a failure of civility in the first sense, the lack of courtesy, while others link more closely to incivility in the second sense, an illiberality in the pursuit of the common good, but all these forms of incivility have at root incivility in the third sense, the stripping away of the very graciousness of being. For without confidence in the worth of things, very little mandates we act in modesty and grace in the face of that worth.

Soon the summer quiet of Randolph College, as of so many other colleges, will return to the bustle and activity of study. Many students will labor under the arches, columns, and balustrades of grace’s legacy: have they been taught the courtesy of offering thanks?

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.