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Should College Students be Required to Take a Class in Civility?

Civility pledges are Misguided

As a college professor, I was interested to find out that public institution Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, with an enrollment of 6,365, is requiring all first-year students to take a course in civility. The idea comes from the First Year Advising and Retention Center at CSU.  "We're home to all first-year students to help them transition from high school to college,” said DeLandra Hunter, director of the center.

The purpose of the Civility Talks classes is not only to improve safety and to warn students about issues such as plagiarism, but to combat what some see as a lack of manners and a rise in just plain mean behavior. As part of the program, all first year students at CSU are required to read Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct by Dr. P.M. Forni.

The text includes advice on dealing with others, such as: consider that you might be wrong; think twice before asking favors; give constructive criticism; refrain from idle complaints; respect others' opinions; accept and give praise. The college also has a Civility Blog to go along with the classes.  

As a professor who teaches ethics to college students, I applaud CSU for being proactive and trying to make a difference in the tenor on campus and in the community at a time when civility is lacking in society. However, I don’t believe a class on civility is the best vehicle to change the tenor and meet the challenges of a diverse student population on college campuses.

At another small college, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, with an enrollment of 1,325, students are being asked to sign a civility pledge that will go into effect this fall semester. It’s voluntary but much is being done to encourage and inform students of the value of the pledge. The goal is for incoming Centre first-year students to make a formalized commitment to uphold basic core values throughout their time on campus.

The goals of the pledge are to start a dialogue on campus about what it means to be a Centre student and promote a positive student culture at Centre by upholding the values of respect, responsibility, academic integrity and honor. The student-led initiative has at its core to inspire students to hold one another accountable for their actions — in respecting one another and campus property.

Civility pledges may be more valuable in small institutions like CSU and Centre where students tend to know each other and are close to their professors. As such, a class in civility should explore student rights and responsibilities in the pursuit of knowledge. There are basic principles such as treating others equally; respecting others’ points of view; attentiveness in class; and respecting your professors. Other acts of civility are more crucial to safety on campus and supporting each student’s right to freely express his or her point of view including sexual preference. Of primary importance is the prohibition against bullying and cyber bullying, a problem on today’s campuses.

What about the larger institutions where, after all, most of tomorrow’s leaders in business and government will come from? One year ago Harvard University freshman were asked to sign a ‘civility’ pledge. The “Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge” would have committed students to build a "place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment."

Critics such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) argued that such loyalty oaths have no place in an academy that should aim to be a "genuinely innovative and dynamic environment." Rather than pushing students to commit themselves to a system of moral values privileging kindness and civility before they have even taken their first class, the group argues that institutions such as Harvard should remember that their mission is to help students learn how to think critically, not what to think, and to embark on "the truly difficult work of challenging their own assumptions and learning to think for themselves."

While the pledge was voluntary and the names of those who signed it were not released, it was posted in the residence halls. The backlash against the pledge by groups such as FIRE may have been the direct cause of Harvard being named one of the 12 “Worst Colleges for Free Speech.”

I do not believe civility pledges are the answer to instances of incivility on campus. My thoughts are such a pledge generally becomes just a piece of paper -- something to be filed away and, unfortunately, all-too-often used solely for PR purposes.

True civility in any organization begins with the tone at the top and examples set by top administrators. Young people learn about civility by examining the behavior of others. Teaching about civility is proper in those courses where it is, or should be, part of the curriculum. Teaching about civility is best done in the context of running a classroom with a certain sense of decorum and respect and guiding academic dialogue and exploration of ideas. Most of all, professors should look for ‘teachable moments’ to instill a sense of how to treat others respectfully and with tolerance and acceptance of contrary ideas and life-choice preferences.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 27, 2012