This really IS about education. Stay with me here.A friend of mine is about to throw herself a lavish 30th birthday bash. She took care of everything: rented a hall, hired a band, sent out evites well head of time, arranged for the caterers and the disco ball, and plans to boogie the night, and her first three decades, away. What she doesn’t have is a clue about who intends to join her.
That’s an exaggeration: she has something of a clue. Many of us have rsvp’d but some of the invitees simply linger in impenetrable silence despite several follow-up pleas for a general head count. Their muteness basically suggests either: I’m coming but I just don’t feel like making the effort to let you know; or I’m unable to attend but I just don’t feel like making the effort to let you know. Either way, one thing is certain: not responding to an invitation from a friend is just plain rude.
Of course, these days ‘rude’ is a relative term. Back in the day, when our society was more homogeneous (at least the prevailing class thereof) the rules of etiquette were more generally understood – they comprised a language of inclusion. The increasing recognition of diverse cultures and their various mores has changed all that, in my opinion for the good. I’m all for widening the range of what’s considered socially acceptable, of looking beyond mannerisms to more genuine gestures of heart and spirit.
That said, is there something fundamental in what might be deemed ‘good’ behavior, something that distinguishes superior character, of a person or an organization, regardless of the influences of money or background? I believe there is – I believe it is has to do with respect.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers: The Story of Success, he describes an experimental public school in the South Bronx that, despite seemingly overwhelming disadvantages, has become notably successful. Entrance to the KIPP Academy (KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program”) is by lottery; residents of the borough are eligible but there are no entrance exams or other requirements. A good percentage of this randomly selected student body comes from single-parent low-income families in which nobody has ever gone to college; their home environments are often minimal and their neighborhood dangerous. On the surface this would not seem to be a formula for success but the KIPP Academy turns such a calculation on its head. The statistics are startling: by the time students reach 8th grade most are doing well in all their subjects and a staggering 84% are performing above grade level in math. KIPP students have long school days, substantial homework every night and most go to college and even beyond.
Hard work, however, isn’t the real story. Early on KIPP kids are taught a “protocol known as SSLANT: smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when being spoken to, and track with your eyes” (p. 251). It’s clear that what the KIPP Academy nurtures is a culture of respect.
Students respect their teachers and in term experience respect – from their teachers, administrators, fellow students and ultimately for themselves and their potential. They respect the opportunity they’ve been given and express this understanding by working hard, showing up and being present. They respect what a college degree can mean for them and for their families. You might say that in terms of their educational experience, KIPP students have good manners.
One of the several definitions of respect is ‘to pay due attention.’ Good manners aren’t about knowing what to do with the fish fork or learning how to fake social graces. At heart, good manners involve looking outward rather than inward, attempting to understand, and respond to, another’s experience. Respectful behavior is the opposite of bullying, cheating and entitlement. Good manners embody concern for the comfort and well being of others. Respect grows from the nurturance of an appreciative spirit.
Respectful behavior – the skill of paying due attention – can be taught and encouraged, in the school environment as well as at home. It can become a foundation for personal power: the power to achieve, to grow, to be a positive influence. If it becomes a skill that is valued, then we might see a very different manner of social, and political, discourse. Rudeness might not be tolerated as it is now. Expressions of gratitude might become commonplace. Companies might consider it important to send at least a polite no-thanks to applicants instead of dropping their resumes into a black hole of silence. People might notice, and care more, about each other and about themselves. Bullying and other forms of persecution might diminish. And my friend wouldn’t be left wondering how many chicken wings to order for her big bash.
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