Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

University Manners?


Over at Misanthropyst is a link to a list of questions to ask your grandparents, questions meant to highlight the civil shortcomings of modern students. It includes the following: Did students ever get up and leave in the middle of a lecture if they had to go to the bathroom, without asking the permission of the teacher?

Perhaps the list should include in its focus modern teachers, also younger than the WWII generation. (They are somewhat obliquely mentioned in the original article, but left out in both subsequent citations.)

I was brought up in a home where a young lady stands when introduced to anyone except a younger female, where gentlemen open doors on houses and cars, and where age commands respect. (No, not lack of justified criticism -- an uncle swearing at his daughter was told off quite harshly. Just respect. And the rules have nothing to do with ability and the "weaker sex" and everything to do with manners -- I do most of the heavy lifting around the house, but I still expect to have the car door opened.) My school ran by the old rules as well (rules which, I hear, have been tossed out the door with the regulations on skirt length and mandatory Latin class): you stand on the first day when the teacher enters the room, and thereafter when other adults enter the room, you don't smart back, you ask permission to leave the room and do your best not to have to disrupt the class, and you behave decently and respectfully. My geographical region and that of my family was one in which I would never have dreamed of having the gall to refer to someone significantly my elder or in a position of authority over me by her first name on my own initiative. Even when requested, it felt uncomfortable. (Oddly, among my group of friends, Jewish mothers were exempted and were referred to by their first name. All other parents were Mr. and Mrs.)

Harvard was a bit of a shock. I remember painfully well the first time I, in a small freshman discussion class, asked to be excused, as this writer clearly thinks should be done. The students laughed and the teacher said, sneeringly, "this isn't kindergarten." Such practices, once thought mannerly, are apparently infantile. I have kept to the other customs, in part: I stand, alone, the first day the teacher enters the room, but not when other teachers feel a need to interrupt class; I dress well at the start of class, to show respect for the teacher, although I often end up lax; I say "sir" and "ma'am"; and maintain a very formal tone in writing and only address instructors familiarly in exceptional circumstances (my mentor being the only such exception that springs to mind). Nobody there seems to think anything of calling seventy-year-old professors by first names (of course, I spoke often of Marty and Larry, but it was Professor Feldstein and President Summers in person). I first felt like a sore thumb, largely thanks to that sneering teacher (who earned my dislike many times over), but soon got over it. I ended up feeling like the woman who arranges flowers based on their meaning and sends them to ignorant people, not caring that they don't know -- I was doing my part to respect myself and those around me, and I knew it, regardless of whether or not my fellows or superiors did.

I had a fabulous English teacher in tenth grade. She referred to us formally, saying either "Smith" and "Jones" or "Miss Truett" and "Mr. Schwarz." She explained to us that she showed us respect in that manner and expected the same in return. She took no nonsense at all from any student. She wasn't all prunes and prisms -- she was also known for armwrestling the strongest and rowdiest of the male students -- but she kept us in line and taught us well. If I teach, I hope to do the same.

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