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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Abandoning Virtue ... For Decorum

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Abandoning Virtue ... For Decorum

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Advocates of virtue have, for centuries, located it in the middle, a next-door neighbor of the golden mean.

Advocates of virtue have, for centuries, located it in the middle, a next-door neighbor of the golden mean. And although the "golden mean" has an intimation of wealth or luxury built into its nomenclature, virtue has, over time, often been seen as its own reward. Cicero saw virtue in the proper economic perspective when he maintained: "Of less worth than gold is silver, than virtue, gold." This comes to mind as parents, government agencies, and technological experts search for ways of insulating children from unwholesome fallout from cable channels and the Internet. Protecting children from unvirtuous situations is, of course, not the same as teaching them to practice virtue on their own.

Early this year in these pages, Headmaster Peter R. Greer drew, in a Commentary called "Teaching Virtue," the blueprint for a school in which students are conditioned to become virtuous. ("Teaching Virtue," Feb. 4, 1998.) Mr. Greer's extensive plan involved total immersion in a sea of virtue: The faculty must be trained in the theory and engage in the practice of virtue; all teachers are to build virtue in all subjects; and the mission statement of the school must explicitly support this philosophy. In short, virtue becomes such an integral part of the school's fabric that one presumes if anyone dallied along the primrose path, his benign colleagues, enveloped in virtue, would nudge him back onto the straight and narrow.

Having seen some students explode after learning in a pent-up, forced-virtue environment for a few years, I don't believe that this approach is the right answer. In fact, virtue, or lack of it, is largely established in the home, where it is buttressed by religious beliefs. Public schools, without massive home support, cannot effectively teach virtue. What they can do, however, is encourage decorum, a behavior found in the virtue family but less ascendant in the hierarchy.

One must first concede that establishing decorum is a worthy goal and not simply a nostalgic reflection in the rearview mirror for someone who remembers when boys didn't wear caps in classes, when conversations in school corridors weren't peppered with the scuzziest kind of talk, and when teachers were not shot at or attacked or verbally upbraided by young people who didn't see eye to eye with them. Did some of these conditions prevail because students had few rights in those halcyon days? Probably. But I suggest that mutual respect between students and teachers is not incompatible with decorum.

What is incompatible is the gradual debasement of the larger culture, as the meretricious atmosphere that engulfs us all finds young people, who are still seeking peer approbation, most vulnerable.

Consider these points: Feature movies, most of which are R-rated, spout street talk with the aplomb of habitues of red-light districts. If theater owners do observe the age restrictions for admission, young people can gain easy access through VCRs or cable TV. The prevalence of crude talk and concomitant behavior in films suggests to youngsters that most people in the real world observe these same patterns. Recently, a young British playwright included the f-word in the title of his play. When it moved from London to New York, magazines and newspapers, in accepting advertisements, faced a decorum litmus test in deciding whether or not to print the original title. The New York Times said no, whereas The New Yorker magazine, found in many school libraries, said yes.

However, even the Times has been lured into the gray area that extends outward from a core of gentility by the sexual allegations against the president. Meanwhile, David Letterman and Jay Leno seem to be trying to top each other in vulgarity as they lampoon the president's problems. Mind you, these are not monologues on "party" records but routines by mainstream comedians on network television. The real language problem English teachers confront today is not solecisms such as "between you and I" and "irregardless," it's the flood of bilge flowing out of movies, cable television, and records, a flood so heavy it threatens to become the mainstream.

By comporting ourselves in dress and language that validate our position as role models, we make a strong impact.

Language is only one rampart on which the struggle to protect and re-establish decorum needs to be waged. Have you spied anyone wearing blue jeans to church lately? Chances are you wouldn't have to look very far, even in the frigid months when corduroys are more appropriate. Or, how about teachers wearing blue jeans to class? Although labor agreements often bar administrators from commenting negatively on teacher apparel, unless it is unduly revealing, I believe that teachers, in gaining the right to dress as they please, have forfeited a few cubits in their stature as role models, as leaders who should maintain a position above their students as proponents of decorum.

Another difficulty in trying to teach decorum lies in students' desire to be accepted by their peer group. There is a scene in "Good Will Hunting," nominated for an Academy Award as best picture of 1997, in which Skylar, the diligent Harvard student portrayed by Minnie Driver, wants to prove to Will, a mathematical genius who is consumed by his own hostilities, and Will's ne'er-do-well chums, that she can be one of the gang. She goes with Will to a bar to meet his buddies and apparently decides that quaffing a few beers and sprinkling her conversation with f-words are not enough for her to be really accepted. She gains their attention to relate an outlandishly dirty joke, made more gross by having a visual as well as a verbal punch line. In this case, and in all too many cases today, the decorum arrow is pointing downward. Instead of trying to crank up Will's gentility a few notches, Skylar lowers herself to the level of Will and his shaggy friends. After a few rifts between Will and Skylar, he pursues her to California, where she is about to begin graduate studies. And what has helped her win her man? As I read it, she is not only an attractive and obliging woman to him, but also a foul-mouthed buddy who can replace the male-bonding chatter he is sacrificing to join her.

I cite this film at length because it parallels a situation that over the years is becoming more manifest in the school where I teach English. The school is located in a district where parents are very supportive and want the best for their kids. I have already mentioned that chatter in the halls during passing time between classes is R-rated. Girls seem to be the worse offenders, but that may be because their voices carry further or that street talk is still a new toy for them, so they are more demonstrative in using it. The point is that their decorum arrow, like Skylar's, is pointed in the wrong direction. There's a related situation that reinforces this movement toward a less decorous direction. In the winter months many girls' outfits become nondescript and basically boy-like. One senses a faint echo of Gene Forrester trying to become his roommate Finny, in A Separate Peace, as dozens of girls through their language and their dress and perhaps in their willingness to become members of lacrosse and wrestling teams, are moving in a rowdy direction. In emulating Finny, Gene was trying to upgrade himself to the level of an ideal, a veritable god. Girls who seek to become copies of boys are flouting decorum, not embracing it.

Short of working some legerdemain on the calendar, causing it to flip back a few decades, can we teach decorum? I believe we can make a telling effort. By comporting ourselves in dress and language that validate our position as role models, we make a strong impact. We can't aspire to be as influential as Oprah Winfrey, whose mention of a book title sends sales skyrocketing, and whose negative comments about hamburger landed her in a Texas courtroom, charged with precipitating a downturn in beef sales. But we can reach for the image medical doctors have. The esteem in which they are held and the resultant impact are shown in a linguistic study which revealed patients upgrading their language when communicating with doctors. Should not students also raise their level of in-school deportment to meet standards modeled by teachers? In selecting teaching materials, we should seek out those in which the language has a bit of elegance--a touch of class--but still falls within the reading capabilities of the young people we teach. And finally, in their writing, students should be strongly encouraged to step above the pedestrian in vocabulary, sentence patterns, and organizing their ideas, as they reach for a voice that is both true and decorous.

Peter R. Greer and William J. Bennett notwithstanding, teaching virtue is a far too idealistic goal for nonsectarian schools. Teaching decorum, however, is a challenge we, as educators, must respond to in order to combat the sleaze slide cascading from the hills of the real world.


Henry B. Maloney is currently a part-time high school English teacher, having retired last June as a department head. Over a 47-year career in education, he has been the supervisor of English for the Detroit school district, the vice president for academic affairs at the University of Detroit, and the president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English.

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 41,52

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