This chapter contains articles from Tenley Study Center, Robert Navallo, Edward J. Feulner, William J. Bennet, and James Stenson.
A. What is Character?
This article was used in a small group discussion session of one of our student conferences. It provides an easy to understand introduction on the need to form one’s character. It forms part of a series of brochures provided to the students who go to Tenley Center in Washington, D.C. Although primarily addressed to young men, its ideas may apply to the youth in general.
We often hear, these days, about the importance of character: the necessity of character in our public servants and business leaders; character formation as a vital aspect of education of youth; even self-help books that advertise “10 easy ways to build character and achieve your goals in life.” But for all the discussion of character, few bother to define what it is, exactly, they are talking about.
Perhaps this is because character is one of the more elusive concepts around. We recognize intuitively its importance, but find it all-but-impossible to grasp in its essentials. Character is- at one and the same time- the most important and the most intangible thing about a person. It makes us what we are, and allows us to become what we aspire to be. We recognize its presence in others, but defining it is a different matter. In common parlance, character usually has the connotation of guts, or the ability to overcome obstacles. These qualities may describe traits that result from a character, but do not really get at its essence. Webster’s gives us several meanings that are closer to the mark: “moral constitution,” “strongly developed moral quality,” moral “capacity.” Interestingly, each of these dictionary definitions- unlike the more contemporary usage- emphasizes that the notion of character is intimately bound up with morality, one’s sensitivity to and conformity with an objective moral law. Still, these more complete definitions remain deficient, for they imply that character is a quality inherited at birth, rather than the product of prolonged struggle. Clearly, a sufficient definition of character would include both the moral dimension (consisting in objective moral norms imposed from without), and the element of habitual personal effort (consisting in the interior struggle of conforming one’s actions with the moral demands of the moment in a consistent manner). Character, then, might best be termed “the ability to commit oneself to the pursuit of noble goals.”
Let’s look at a little more closely at that definition. First of all, we should note that it is not dependent on success; although character certainly helps one to persevere through adversity in the pursuit of one’s goals, it does not assure their attainment. Much of the time, success in achieving what one sets out to do depends in large part on outside forces over which one has little control. At the same time, standard measurements of achievement are often unreliable gauges of character; a gifted student may receive high marks in class with relatively little effort or study, while another student who finds the material more challenging may very well have to make an extraordinary effort- requiring a good deal more character- to get the identical grade. Character consists in pushing on despite adverse circumstances, in living up to commitments made- even when things get difficult. It does not depend on variables such as feeling or moods, much less native ability, brains, talents, or temperament. It depends on good judgment in determining what goals are worth pursuing, and then the fortitude to follow through in the attempt to attain those goals.
Secondly, “noble goals” would exclude ambitions based on selfishness. Many people are willing to sacrifice a lot in pursuit of goals that it would be difficult to define as noble: vanity, desire to have power or dominion over others, lust after wealth or status. For a high school student, the ambition to attend a top-flight university might be based on the desire to impress one’s peers, on the belief that it would enhance one’s sense of self-worth, or simply vanity; on the other hand, it might be based on the noble ambition of preparing oneself to better serve one’s family and society in the future. Whether the motivation behind one’s ambition is other-oriented or self-oriented has much to do with whether it can be classified as noble.
Character is also about the capacity for commitment to other people rather than the short-term commitment characteristic of a yearning for material goods, for pleasure, or for the approval of peers. When you get down to it, most of the social problems of our society faces are due to the fact that this capacity for commitment to individuals has diminished substantially in recent years. All good things worth pursuing require long-term commitment: professional excellence, marriage and parenting- even lasting friendship. The reason that character is so vital to maintaining these commitments is clear: long-term commitments require character strengths that last for the haul. But in popular culture that equates personal freedom with the evasion of responsibility and the refusal to be constrained by decisions made, the whole concept of commitment becomes utterly foreign, and marriages, professional obligations, and social institutions become impossible to maintain as a result.
Unfortunately, young people today imbibe a good deal of that cultural atmosphere, the effects of which are apparent to anyone who deals with them on a regular basis, particularly their parents. The unwillingness or inability to make commitments can be clearly seen in the responses one normally hears when asking a young man in high school to participate in an educational, religious, or charitable activity: “Let me see what else is happening on that day,” “I like to keep that night free for myself,” or even “yes, I will be there”- followed by a failure to appear. The guiding principle seems to be: don’t let yourself get tied down with obligations when something better, or more entertaining, may always come along. “Freedom” is jealously protected, while the capacity to exercise that freedom (in taking on commitments and following through on those commitments) dies on the vine. In such an environment, it becomes all the more important to transmit to young men the elements of good character, and to inculcate the habits by which it may be attained. Adolescence is, really, the last stop on the journey to mature adulthood- and the beginning of the self-chosen path. Young men between the ages of 12 and 21 are at a crucial stage of their character development, and their ability to acquire the habits of which character is made up- and to adjust their way of behaving to the model they aspire to – is never more acute. In other words, their character is largely determined at this formative age, and patterns of a lifetime are set for good or ill. On the choices that young men make in this regard and the habits they acquire literally depend the future of society. In this task of character education and formation, parents are the ones who have the most profound and lasting effect, both by their example and by the moral principle they pass down to their children to guide them through the often rough shoals of adolescence and young adulthood.
But the formation of the youth does not stop at home; the influences they absorb from teachers, peers, and friends also go a long way toward shaping their way of looking at the world and reacting to it. Humans are social animals largely formed by their interaction with others: that’s a truth even more important to bear in mind at the stage of adolescence. When the parents’ efforts to produce young men of high character are reinforced by these influences outside the family, they invariably find that their job has become remarkably easier as a result of the fact that they are no longer fighting the battle alone. Now, more than ever before, there is a great need for a healthy and natural environment outside of the home where young men can develop through interaction with their peers and through the instruction and example of positive adult role models who can be relied upon as guides and confidants. This is precisely what Tenley Study Center attempts to provide and has done so with great success for over thirty years…
Reprinted by permission from Tenley Study Center, Washington, D.C., www.tenley.org.
B. The need for formation
Michael Jobert I. Navallo
This article was originally printed in REKAP, the official publication of Kapuluan Study Center, a supplementary education center for university students situated near U.P. Diliman. It encapsulates the Center’s role of bringing out what is best in each of the students who frequent it through means of formation. The realization of one’s need for formation is crucial to start one’s journey towards personal development. The author is the Editor-in-Chief of REKAP and the Chairman of Universitas.
There’s an oft-repeated tale about a stone taken from a mine site. Dark, rough and imperfect, the stone could pass off for any other stone, except that when you know it came from a mine site, you’d think twice before throwing it away. It could be a precious stone for all we know, but not after going through a thorough process where the ore is subjected to extreme pressure and, for lack of a better term, “torture.” Only then will you find out that the dark, rough, imperfect stone that you almost threw away, is a sparkling diamond, precious than all other stones.
Who would have thought?
If a miner had not noticed it, the stone could have remained there in the dark, in the depths of the mine site. Or it could have been eroded, taken somewhere else, but still that dark, rough, imperfect stone—just one among the others.
But because someone took time to look closer, a diamond was found.
Perhaps we are that stone that needs to be polished, waiting for the right person to take us out of the dark.
Like precious stones, there is always something in us that needs to be chipped off before we finally turn out to become better individuals. Yes, we are imperfect, given that we are human, but we can always strive to become closer to being perfect.
Hence, the need for formation- to train and educate ourselves all for the good of our future. It is an investment really, knowing that what we do today can affect us in the years to come. Any wrong move now could cost us a lot one day. But if we sow some good seeds now, we can hope to harvest better fruits tomorrow.
More important than securing a better future, formation gives us the chance to do something for our society. Imagine putting together all the little changes that we do in each of us. What a better world it would be!
Formation, however, is no easy thing. It requires and demands a lot—from the time we commit ourselves to every single moment we live up to that commitment.
Apart from that, it asks us to give up some good things so better things can come. We can’t expect to be formed and yet stay as we are, with the same undesirable habits and without the sense of serving others.
What’s more, formation is a never-ending process that does not stop after college; it lasts a lifetime. We can never be too old for formation. We can never outgrow formation. It is in this sense that humility matters—the ability to accept the fact that no matter how popular or successful we’ve become, we still have a lot of things to learn.
Kapuluan provides that venue to form young people. Perhaps not so much an apt metaphor but yes, it can be that miner on the lookout for stones with potential. Unlike the miner, however, Kapuluan recognizes that everyone has the potential to become the diamond that he can be.
But since the formation provided by the Center is one that is based on love and respect for freedom, Kapuluan can only help if the person is willing. The Center provides us with the means to make full use of that freedom, by helping us make the right choice.
Unlike stones, we have the capacity to choose. Unless we take our formation seriously, we won’t be able to truly say that we are free. The opportunity is at hand. Let’s not waste it.
Reprinted by permission from Kapuluan Study Center, Quezon City, Philippines , www.kapuluan.net.
C. Lay Your Hammer Down
Edwin J. Feulner
This article is an excerpt of the author’s speech at the 152nd Hillsdale College Commencement Exercises in Michigan. It calls for a renewal of a sense of civility in our times. The author is the President of Heritage Foundation, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C.
In 1969 a Stanford University psychologist named Philip Zimbardo set up an experiment. He arranged for two cars to be abandoned — one on the mean streets of the Bronx, New York, the other in an affluent neighborhood near Stanford in Palo Alto, California. The license plates had been removed, and the hoods were left open. Zimbardo wanted to see what would happen to the cars.
In the Bronx, he soon found out. Ten minutes after the car was abandoned, people began stealing parts from it. Within three days the car was stripped. When there was nothing useful left to take, people smashed windows and ripped out upholstery, until the car was trashed.
In Palo Alto, something quite different happened: nothing. For more than a week the car sat there unmolested. Zimbardo was puzzled, but he had a hunch about human nature. To test it, he went out and, in full view of everyone, took a sledgehammer and smashed part of the car. Soon, passersby were taking turns with the hammer, delivering blow after satisfying blow. Within a few hours, the vehicle was resting on its roof, demolished.
Among the scholars who took note of Zimbardo’s experiment were two criminologists: James Q. Wilson, who is now the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and George Kelling. The experiment gave rise to their now famous “broken windows” theory of crime, which is illustrated by a common experience: When a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, the rest of the windows are soon broken by vandals.
Why is this? Aside from the fact that it’s fun to break windows, why does the broken window invite further vandalism? Wilson and Kelling say it’s because the broken window sends a signal that no one is in charge here, that breaking more windows costs nothing, that it has no undesirable consequences. The broken window is their metaphor for a whole host of ways that behavioral norms can break down in a community. If one person scrawls graffiti on a wall, others will soon be at it with their spray cans. If one aggressive panhandler begins working a block, others will soon follow. In short, once people begin disregarding the norms that keep order in a community, both order and community unravel, sometimes with astonishing speed.
Police in big cities have dramatically cut crime rates by applying this theory. Rather than concentrate on felonies such as robbery and assault, they aggressively enforce laws against relatively minor offenses- graffiti, public drinking, panhandling, littering.
When order is visibly restored at that level, a signal is sent out: This is a community where behavior does have consequences. If you can’t get away with jumping a turnstile into the subway, you’d better not try
Now all this is a preface. My topic is not crime on city streets. Rather, I want to speak about incivility in the marketplace of ideas. The broken windows theory is what links the two.
What we’re seeing in the marketplace of ideas today is a disturbing growth of incivility that follows and confirms the broken windows theory. Alas, this breakdown of civil norms is not a failing of either the political left or right exclusively. It spreads across the political spectrum from one end to the other.
A few examples: A liberal writes a book calling Rush Limbaugh a “big fat idiot.” A conservative writes a book calling liberals “useful idiots.” A liberal writes a book titled “The Lies of George W. Bush.” A conservative writes a book subtitled “Liberal Lies About the American Right.” A liberal publishes a detailed “case for Bush- hatred.” A conservative declares, “Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do.”
Those few examples- and unfortunately there are many, many more- come from elites in the marketplace of ideas. All are highly educated people who write nationally syndicated columns, publish best-selling books, and are hot tickets on radio and television talk shows.
Further down the food chain, lesser lights take up smaller hammers, but they commit even more degrading incivilities. The Internet, with its easy access and worldwide reach, is a breeding ground for Web sites with names like Bushbodycount.com and Toostupidtobepresident.com.
This is how the broken windows theory plays out in the marketplace of ideas. If you want to see it working in real time, try the following: Log on to AOL, and go to one of the live chat rooms reserved for political chat. Someone will post a civil comment on some political topic. Almost immediately, someone else will swing the verbal hammer of incivility, and from there the chat degrades into a food fight, with invective and insult as the main course.
This illustrates the first aspect of the broken windows theory, which we saw with the car in Palo Alto. Once someone wields the hammer- once the incivility starts- others will take it as an invitation to join in, and pretty soon there’s no limit to the incivility. And if you watch closely in that chat room, you’ll see something else happening. Watch the screen names of people who make civil comments. Some- a few- will join in the food fight. But most will log off. Their screen names just disappear. They leave because the atmosphere has turned hostile to anything approaching a civil exchange or a real dialogue.
This illustrates the second aspect of the broken windows theory: Once the insults begin flying, many will opt out. Wilson and Kelling describe this response when the visible signs of order deteriorate in a neighborhood:
Many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. Don’t get involved. For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little… But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments… For them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.
The chat room shows us that a similar response occurs when civility breaks down in the marketplace of ideas. Many people withdraw and tune out, regardless of whether the incivility occurs in a chat room, on a talk show, in a newspaper column, in political campaign ads, or on the floor of Congress. This is the real danger of incivility. Our free, self-governing society requires an open exchange of ideas, which in turn requires a certain level of civility rooted in mutual respect for each other’s opinions and viewpoints.
What we see today, I am afraid, is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict the most damage with the hammer of incivility. Increasingly, those who take part in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when, in fact, they are trading insults: idiot, liar, moron, traitor.
Civility and Character
Earlier this week I was in London and attended a dinner honoring Lady Margaret Thatcher on the 25th anniversary of her accession to the Prime Ministership of Great Britain. She was also a great political leader and has always been a model of civility.
If you want to grasp the nature of civility, try to imagine Lady Thatcher calling someone a “big fat idiot.” You will instantly understand that civility isn’t an accessory one can put on or take off like a scarf. It is inseparable from the character of great leaders…
Incivility is not a social blunder to be compared with using the wrong fork. Rather, it betrays a defect of character. Incivility is dangerous graffiti, regardless of whether it is spray-painted on a subway car or embossed on the title page of a book. The broken windows theory shows us the dangers in both cases.
But those cases aren’t parallel in every way, and in closing I want to call your attention to an important difference. When behavioral norms break down in a community, police can restore order. But when civility breaks down in the marketplace of ideas, the law is powerless to set things right. And properly so: Our right to speak freely- even with incivility, if we choose- is guaranteed by those five glorious words in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…” And yet, the need for civility has never been greater. Our nation is divided as never before between the left and the right. We are at loggerheads on profoundly important political and social questions. Meanwhile, civilization itself is under barbaric attack from without.
If we are to prevail as a free, self- governing people, we must first govern our tongues and our pens. Restoring civility to public discourse is not an option. It is a necessity…
Who will begin the restoration of civility? I hope you will.
After four years of study at Hillsdale, you know the difference between attacking a person’s argument and attacking a person’s character. Respect that difference.
Your education here has taught you how to engage in rational debate and either hold your own or lose with grace and civility. Take that lesson with you.
Your professors at Hillsdale have shown you, by their example, that you don’t need the hammer of incivility to make your point. Follow their example. Defend your convictions — those virtues — with all the spirit you can. But do it with all the civility that you ought. As you leave this special place, lay your hammer down…
Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu.
D. Teaching the Virtues
William J. Bennett
This article is an excerpt of the author’s speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan. It encourages the reader to work on acquiring virtues and transmitting them to others. The author is known for being the editor of the “Book of Virtues.”
When I was Secretary of Education under President Reagan, I visited an elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina. As I did at many of the 120 schools I visited during that period, I taught a lesson there on George Washington. Afterwards, I asked the kids if they had any questions, and one little guy raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Secretary, when you and President Reagan and the other people get together at meetings of the Cabinet, do you really eat Jelly Bellys?” He’d heard about Reagan’s penchant for Jelly Belly jelly beans. I answered, “Yes, the president has a bowl of jelly beans at the meetings, and he eats some and passes them around, and I’ve had a few.” And this kid looked me in the face and said, “I think you’ve had more than a few, Mr. Secretary.”
This was quite funny, and I remember President Reagan laughing when I told him about it. But the story also makes an important point. Do you recall when Gorbachev was visiting the U.S. and trying to figure out what America was like? He went walking up and down Connecticut Avenue, and he went over the National Archives to look at documents. But he should have gone to that elementary school in Raleigh. I can guarantee you that never in the history of the Soviet Union did an eight- year-old look into the eyes of a heavyset minister of education and say, ‚I’ll bet you’ll eat all the caviar you can get on your hands on.‛ Maybe the kid’s comment was a little fresh – a little over the top – but it showed that the ethos of liberty is in our hearts, and that it is good, and important thing. But of course it’s not the only good and important thing.
Later, when I was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – or Drug Czar, as some called me – I visited about 140 communities and heard over and over much different concern. Whether I was talking to teachers, school administrators, parents, cops, or judges, they wanted to know: Who’s raising the children? What kind character do our kids have? Who’s paying attention to their morals? A judge in Detroit once said to me: “When I ask young men today, ‘Didn’t anyone ever teach you the difference between right and wrong?’ they answer, ‘No sir.’ And you know, Mr. Bennett, I believe them. It is a moral vacuum out there.” I remember teachers in the public school asking, “Can you help us develop some materials that we can use with our kids to teach them right from wrong?” Isn’t that ironic? The public schools of this country, which were established principally to provide common moral instruction for a nation of immigrants, were now wondering if this was possible. Many people expressed the concern that we had become so enamored of our economic and material success that we were neglecting more important things. Someone wrote me a letter and said, “If we have streets of gold and silver, but our children do not learn to walk with God, what will we have gained?”
Three Ways of Teaching Virtue
Some of us, frankly, had our doubts about whether this moral dilemma could be solved. I authored a series of studies called the “Index of Leading Cultural Indicators,” which, instead of measuring inflation or interest rates, drug addiction, illegitimacy, divorce, SAT scores and crime. A lot of the numbers were quite alarming. I wrote in the introduction to one of the studies that if we kept moving in the direction we were going, this great republic– this great experiment in self-government– could conceivably unravel. So “teaching the virtues” seemed very much to me then, and still seems to me today, a concern of prime importance for the American people. And I think the answer regarding how to teach virtues is pretty straightforward. Aristotle had a good read on it, and modern psychology and other contemporary studies back him up: We teach by habit, we teach by precept, and we teach by example.
Aristotle says that habituation at an early age makes more than a little difference; it can make almost all the difference. So if you want kids to learn what work is, you should have them work. If you want them to learn what responsibility means, you should hold them responsible. If you want them to learn what perseverance is, you should encourage them to persevere. And you should start as early as possible. Of course, this is harder to do than to say. Being a parent and teaching these things is a very rigorous exercise.
Precepts are also important. The Ten Commandments, the principles of American democracy rules of courteous behavior– these and other lists of rights and wrongs should be provided to you young people. But as we provide them, young people need to know that we take these precepts seriously. That leads to the third part of teaching virtue that Aristotle talked about, which is example. And that, probably, is the one we should emphasize the most. I have been to school after school where the administration thinks it can solve its “values problem” by teaching a course in values. I don’t believe in courses in values. I don’t think that’s the way to go about solving the problem. If we want young people to take right and wrong seriously, there is an indispensable condition: They must be in the presence of adults who take right and wrong seriously. Only in this way will they see that virtue is not just a game, not just a talk, but rather it is something that grown-up people, people who have responsibilities in the world and at home, take seriously.
Let me give you an extreme example of the futility of precept in the absence of example. More than once I’ve been in schools where they are teaching a ‚virtue of the week‛ In one such school, the virtue of the week is honesty. There had been a test on honesty, and the teacher told me that she had had to prepare a second test because she had caught so many students cheating on the first. We are missing the point of the enterprise here. Our children won’t take honesty seriously until we grown-ups demand honesty of ourselves and others, including our leaders. Needles to say, the Clinton years were not good years of impressing the virtue of honesty on our kids.
The Lessons of 9/11
Along these same lines, there are many lessons to be drawn, it seems to me, from the events of September 11, 2001. They are teachable events, and there is much in them for young people to learn. Many sophisticated or pseudo-sophisticated people have been nursing the idea for years that concepts like right and wrong and good and evil are outmoded. But we saw these things in full force on 9/11. We saw the face of evil and felt the hand of evil, but we also saw the face of good and felt the many hands of good, and our kids saw and felt these things, too.
We also saw the sinew, the fiber, the character of the American people. I am not just talking about the firefighter and the cops, I’m talking about the people associated with Xavier High School who died trying to rescue and help people. I’m talking about those folks on American Flight 93– the American businessmen traveling across the country with their laptops. These are the guys who are the butt of humor for every aspiring pseudo- intellectual and every Hollywood filmmaker who wants to run down America. Life in the suburbs, according to these so-called elites, is full of emptiness and desolation and misery. Perhaps I am overstating this, but the middle-class American businessman has been the target of an awful lot of criticism from an awful lot of directions for an awful lot of years. When the chips were down, though, these businessmen did pretty well, didn’t they?
I was reading an updated transcript a couple of weeks ago in which one of the four men who rushed the cockpit on Flight 93 said to the person on the other end of the phone line, “We are waiting until we get over a rural area.” They knew what was likely to happen, so they were waiting in order to minimize the death toll. What extraordinary human beings these ordinary Americans turned out to be.
In the aftermath of 9/11, I am re-thinking some of the things I wrote a couple of years ago about the American character. I had feared. Frankly, that we had drifted so far from the ideas and principles of our Founding Fathers that their understanding of nobility had become but a dim memory. Certainly it remains true that the words and deeds of George Washington and the other great figures of American history are not sufficiently vivid in the minds of our kids, or even of too many of our adults. Nevertheless, 9/11 provided pretty compelling evidence of the solid virtues we Americans retain.
The Importance of Learning
In conclusion, let me connect my point about teaching by example to another 9/11 story. You have probably seen Mrs. Beamer on television
– Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer, who was one of the heroes on Flight 93. She has said that her children will look at the picture of her husband every day, and that she will tell them daily that he is a hero and that they are to try to be like him.
This reminded me of a statistic I uncovered in a book that I wrote on the American family a few years back. We all know, based on countless studies as well as common sense, that if you want to raise happy and successful children, the best formula is a two-parent family. Despite the fact that not all of us have that opportunity– my brother and I were raised by a single parent who was married several times– it’s nevertheless true. But the statistic I discovered when writing my book was that children who lose a father in the line of duty– because the father is a police officer or a soldier, for example– are indistinguishable from children who grow up in intact two-parent families. Why is that?
It is because the moral example doesn’t have to be there physically. It can be in the mind and in the heart. As a result of Lisa Beamer saying, “Be like him.” Then, Todd Beamer will be in the minds and hearts of the kids.
This illustrates one of my favorite themes: the importance of the things we can’t see of non-material things. Moral examples can exist in the memory of a father or in the memory of the Founding Fathers or in the memory of any of the marvelous heroes in the long history of humankind. The historian Tacitus wrote, “The task of history is to hold out for reprobation every evil word and deed, and to hold out for praise every great and noble word and deed.” So we don’t need courses in values. We need good courses in history. We need to revive the reading of good books. We need to provide good precepts and encourage good habits. Above all we have to teach by example. Nor is this to say that we need to be perfect to be good examples. Our children can see us try and fail from time to time. But then they can see us try again and do better, or get it right, the second time. Thus they learn about human limitations, but also about human perseverance.
It’s not an old notion and an old responsibility, the teaching of virtues. Virtues don’t come in our genes, so it is the duty of every generation to pass them on. It is a duty we are not allowed to surrender.
Reprinted with permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu.
D. Table Manners for the Home
This article is one of the many that the author has been writing for the upkeep of good manners especially in a family. We included it in this Chapter as it underlines the interconnectivity of one’s behavior at home with the outside environment. The author is a world-renowned figure in upbringing and values for the family. He is based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Parents should make a conscientious and sustained effort to teach their children good table manners. If children are led to practice etiquette at home-by the parents’ example and their own repeated practice- they will internalize these details of civilized behavior to form lifelong virtuous habit. Good table manners, like other forms of etiquette, lead the children to exercise personal restraint (the virtue of temperance) and respect for the sensibilities of those around them. Moreover, living good manners at home underscores that family meals are special, even sacred time together- where we call down God’s blessings on the family and treat each other with cordial respect.
Parents should realize too, that later in life their children’s habitual good manners would bring honor to the family and enhance their children’s social and professional lives. Thus parents’ sustained effort to impart good table manners is really an important investment.
Details of Good Table Manners
Place your napkin on your lap. Don’t put it anywhere else, especially tucked into your shirt collar like a baby’s bib. Similarly, if you’re wearing a tie, don’t tuck it inside your shirt to “protect” it from possible spills. Doing this thing is immature and oafishly ill-mannered; it implies that you’re aware you slobber food as you eat but you want to keep damage to a minimum.
If you leave the table during the meal, be sure to say, “Excuse me, please.” Then pick up the napkin from your lap and place it to the left of your plate. (If the table is crowded, and your napkin might get in your neighbor’s way, you may put it in your chair instead.) At the end of the meal the napkin goes unfolded to the left of your plate. If you’re a guest in someone’s house or at a restaurant don’t put your napkin at the table until your host does.
Don’t put your elbows on the table. Resting your forearms on the table is OK, but not the elbows.
If the table is crowded, know which food belongs to your place-setting: your salad and your bread are on your left, your drink on your right.
Know how to use your silverware. In a fairly formal, full course meal, the outside utensils (salad fork and soup spoon) are used first, the inner utensils for the main course and then the innermost for dessert and coffee. Try not to make unnecessary noise when using your silverware; put knives and forks gently.
Don’t add salt or pepper to the food before you’ve tasted it. If someone asks you to pass the salt, pass both the salt and the pepper.
If something you need is out of easy reach, just politely ask someone to pass you something. Say “please” and “thank you.”
If several people are conversing at the table and you must ask someone to pass you something, say the person’s name first in order to get his attention before you specify your request: “Frank, would you please pass the bread?” Then, of course, say, “Thank You.”
Bring the food to your mouth, not vice versa.
If there’s food in your mouth, swallow it before taking a drink. That is, you shouldn’t put drink into your mouth while there’s still food in it.
Before taking a drink of water, first clean your lips by gently dabbing your napkin on them. This is to avoid leaving an unsightly smear of grease or food particles on the rim of your glass after you’ve drunk from it. Don’t wipe the napkin across your mouth; just dab a couple of times.
When taking up soup in your soupspoon, you should move the spoon away from you in the bowl, not toward you. This may seem awkward but it’s good manners and there’s sensible reason for it. If you pull the spoonful of soup toward you, you might spill or drip some drops on the table or onto your lap. This is less likely to happen if you move the spoon away from you before taking it into your mouth. Also note: If crackers are served, don’t put them in the soup; eat them separately between sips of soup. (Exception: small crackers can be put in clam chowder.)
Hold your knife and fork properly when cutting meat. That is, hold the fork in your left hand with the tines pressing on the meat, then cut with the first couple of inches of your knife held in your right hand. (If you’re left-handed, reverse the hands holding knife and fork.) Don’t cut more than one piece of meat at a time. After you cut, place your knife sideways on the outer rim of your plate with the blade facing toward you; no part of the knife should touch your table. Also, never wave silverware when talking; that is, don’t use silverware to point or gesture.
Compliment the food briefly and sincerely, but don’t make conversation about it. To talk much about food is bad manners.
Chew with your mouth closed, and don’t talk while the food is in your mouth (extremely bad manners). Swallow first, then talk. For this reason, you should try to eat small or moderate mouthfuls of food at a time. If you are asked a question while you have too much food in your mouth, you may have to keep people waiting for a reply until you finish chewing and swallowing. This is awkward for everyone. (By the same token, try not to ask someone a question when he has just put food in his mouth.)
Except when you’re buttering a toast, you should not butter a whole piece of bread all at once. Instead, break off one piece of bread at a time and then put butter on that piece. If there is only one butterknife for the table use it to put a small amount of butter on your plate, then return it and switch to your own knife to butter your bread. In other words, don’t use the table’s butterknife, which diners will also use, to butter their own bread. And above all, don’t use your own knife, which has crumbs, or grease on it- to cut a piece of butter. The principle is this: the slab of butter is for everyone to use, and so you shouldn’t smear it with crumbs or grease which other people then have to ingest. Keep the butter slab clean and keep your crumbs to yourself.
When you’ve finished with the main entrée, place your knife and fork together in the center of the plate. This signals to your host or whoever is waiting on you (if anyone) that you’ve finished the course and are ready to have the plate removed. Don’t leave the knife on the plate’s edge, were it might fall off (to everyone’s chagrin) when you or the server removes your plate from the table.
If you’re served dessert in a bowl placed on top of a dessert plate, as with pudding or ice cream, don’t leave your spoon sticking up from the bowl, especially when you’ve finished the dessert. Instead, place the spoon on your dessert plate.
If you’re imbibing your drink through a straw, try to leave a little liquid at the bottom so you don’t make a slurping sound. If you do inadvertently make a slurping sound (and this can easily happen), stop right away. To keep making slurping sounds, straining to drain the glass to the very last drop is annoying to people and implies that you’re a glutton.
Reprinted by permission from the author, www.parentleadership.com.