Whatever Happened to Manners & Morals?

Dear Annapolis Friends and Families (and any other featherless bipeds who happen to read this weekly letter),
Yesterday in chapel, Mr. Lockyer, Annapolis’ Grammar School Principal, publicly praised the actions of a third-grade student, Brody Williamson, who regularly helps a younger student out by carrying his fencing equipment to and from the dance studio where the two engage in all manner of dangerous swashbuckling endeavors after school. I was truly encouraged by Brody’s example of selflessness and service and was reminded afresh that kids these days aren’t all bad! Thank you, Brody, for restoring my hope in humanity’s future!
Though a small kindness, Brody’s action illustrates a BIG part of Annapolis’ mission: the restoration of respect for good ol’ fashioned manners and morals.
Admittedly, we are swimming upstream in our current culture of casual crudeness. It’s no secret that good manners and virtuous morals are decreasingly important to our society and that coarseness, rudeness, moral relativism, corruption, and depravity rule the day. For those who care, this trend is deeply concerning as it signals the onset of a new dark age of barbarism that threatens to engulf us completely. But what can be done to restore respect for things and people? How can Annapolis encourage thoughtful manners and virtuous character in our students and staff?

Training in manners and morals starts with a conscious choice to organize our lives together around a set of noble norms and exalted ideals.  For example, Annapolis students are trained to uphold truth, goodness, and beauty in all areas of life. They are taught to value both faith and the quest for knowledge; to exalt the activities of praying, worshiping, contemplating, reasoning, experimenting, and questioning. They are taught to cherish language as a divine gift and to strive for grace, precision, skill, and variety in its use. To be a Warrior is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are necessary for producing and appreciating enduring art and noble character.
Good manners and morals are also taught when the ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty are enshrined in policies that promote a culture of courteousness and respect. For example, Annapolis’ uniform, grooming, and classroom etiquette policies hold students and staff alike to high standards of dress and deportment.  Respect and thoughtfulness are encouraged by a school-wide policy that students stand and greet adults who visit the classrooms and that boys hold the door for ladies to enter a building first. While warm and cordial relationships between students and staff are encouraged, we insist on maintaining a level of formality in the classrooms and general school life. Neatness and orderliness foster the kind of behavior we wish for in class; slovenliness and informality do not.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not interested in running a school for robots! I don’t expect rigid, self-righteous behavior from Annapolis students or staff. It’s important to remember that manners and formalities are not necessarily goods in themselves. They often mask inconsiderate and even arrogant feelings. God knows the heart and can judge people accordingly. But for us mortals, manners and morals are the proper forms through which truth, goodness, and beauty can be expressed. They are a means by which we love our neighbors as ourselves.
I fully realize that standards of behavior change over time and that what was considered “normal” behavior in the age of Queen Victoria seems stuffy, elitist, and prudish today. I nevertheless maintain that the manners and morals that arose from the civilized living of the past are simply much better vehicles for conveying consideration and courteousness than are the studied self-centeredness and narcissism of the post-modern age in which we live today.
So, in the training of manners and morals, neither completely accepting nor completely rejecting the manners and morals of bygone ages will work. What we need to develop today is a thoughtful, gracious, considerate way of acting that will enable us to live in mutual harmony and love. This will be more likely to occur if we can preserve and adapt to our times the best manners and morals of the past.
To believe in good manners and morals isn’t the same as making them a reality in daily living! At some point, there is a limit to what parents and schools can insist upon without nagging and making life unpleasant for everyone. Yes, there are limits even to the power and wisdom of headmasters! At the end of the day, neither the home nor the school should become a battleground, even to teach what is good.
Still, if we as a classical Christian community hold ourselves to standards of considerate living, praising examples in those who possess grace, and looking even unto the Throne of Grace, we will grow in graciousness ourselves, communicating that quality to our children and shining our light into the broader community.