The theme of this first London Letter is inspired by the editorial and cover story in the June issue of EducationWorld concerning the belated recognition by educationists of the importance of so-called “life skills”, alongside the teaching of academic and technical subjects. Valuable life skills cover a wide spectrum, but the most essential — and most lacking — is politeness.
The derivation of this word is instructive. It comes from the ancient Greek polis, meaning the city-state. Politics is the art or practice of governing the polis, through the police to keep it orderly, and politeness is the essential lubrication that eliminates friction in the interaction between citizens and institutions of complex societies. Politeness is, in fact, a quintessential civic virtue. It starts on a mother’s knee with the instruction to “mind your p’s and q’s (i.e, being sure to say “please” and “thank you”), and learning that “I want doesn’t get”.
William of Wykeham, founder of England’s renowned Winchester College promoted in the 14th century, made ‘Manners makyth man’ its motto, which it still bears and tries to put into practice today. These are usually, but wrongly, called ‘soft skills’. In fact, they aren’t soft or weak at all, but a source of strength. There can be an iron hand in the velvet glove, and presentation of a difficult case is more likely to succeed if done with subtle courtesy rather than with brash abrasiveness. Good manners also make passage through life’s vale of tears a much pleasanter experience.
June’s EducationWorld editorial lamented that “over the past seven decades since post-independence India has… degenerated into one of the contemporary world’s most disliked nations because its leaders, establishment and majority of its citizens are ill-mannered, boorish and unmindful of the convenience of fellow citizens and, by extension, foreign visitors”. But India is not an exception. Britain has degenerated just as badly. The 1950s were the last decade of real politeness. Schools were disciplined institutions, rudeness was not tolerated, teachers supported parents, who in turn were generally worthy of their support. People dressed well and appropriately and observed the courtesies and formalities of civilised social intercourse.
Sadly this is nearly all gone. London’s Daily Telegraph reports that when two years ago the British Council asked 5,000 18-34-year-olds around the world what they thought of the British, the depressing response was that they found us “rude, unfriendly, ignorant and, above all, lazy”. How the mighty are fallen! Despite the huge advances in technology, science and medicine, standards in almost every aspect of social life and indeed morality, have dropped appallingly. Education is, of course, the key to reversing this decline. This is something I shall be exploring in future missives from London.
(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a former professor of classics at Cambridge and Cape Town universities, a former investment banker and author of several books)