The Bay Bridge was closed this weekend, so I predictably had to travel into San Francisco. I took BART, which I haven’t done for a while. In each BART car, there are seats close to the door clearly marked to be made available to elderly and handicapped riders. When I got on the train, the car was crowded, and these seats were the only available. Seeing no one who should be sitting there, I did. But, about four stops later, several elderly folks got on, so I stood up. Before any of them could sit down, a twenty-something man parked himself in my vacated seat, plugged his ears with headphones, put on his sunglasses and checked out. I exchanged a knowing glance with the 70-ish woman seated next to him and we shook our heads in a union of dismay.
For the rest of the ride, while I juggled a brief case, a binder and a handbag while trying to steady myself by holding a pole designed for the reach of arms on a 5′ 9″ person not a 5′ 2″ person, I stewed. What has become of manners, I thought. When did people start shoving their way into an elevator car before you could get out? When did they start congregating at the bottom of a moving escalator to decide where to have lunch? When did people stop saying please, thank you and excuse me? Do theaters really have to show a five-minute interstitial to convince you not to talk on your phone during the movie? And, hey dude who let the door slam on me and my full hands at Peet’s — I hope a karma pigeon dots you right on the forehead while you’re sitting on that park bench, watching me juggle three lattes, an oatmeal and a squirmy four-year-old.
I have a theory about this. I think the dominant culture of consumerism here in this U.S. contributes greatly to the decline of basic common courtesy. Media is so saturated with commercial messages specifically designed to convince us that we’re number one, that customers are always right, and that we deserve the best, we’ve become entirely too egocentric. Basic common courtesy requires thoughtfulness — it requires that we be mindful of the presence and needs of others. None of the messages we’re sending or exposing ourselves to encourage that point of view. It’s indeed quite the opposite: Me, me, me.
I see this effect most profoundly in students younger than 30. Their entire lives, they’ve been pummeled with marketing messages from schools promising to tailor an education program around their busy personal and professional schedules, to graduate them in the shortest possible time frame, and to provide them with individual attention and instruction along the way. What these students hear, essentially, is that their diplomas will be wrapped up and presented to them as painlessly and beautifully as a piece of jewelery from Tiffany’s once they hand over their credit cards or student loan checks. It does not come as a pleasant surprise to these students when an instructor asks them to put some real effort into earning a degree. It also leads to some face-to-face and email conversations that still — after twelve years — amaze me. They reduce to this: “I paid my tuition, and I came to class, so I should get an A.” This is just a contextual version of “The customer is always right.” It’s a sad state of affairs. And, Heaven help me if I assign a group project …
I keep reading article after article about the difficulties poverty brings to education. I certainly don’t dispute the difficulties attendant to educating students who are homeless, hungry, sick or lack school supplies. While I was content to believe for a long time that the “poverty” was economic, I’m realizing more and more that it’s also social. Our schools need as much for money as their occupants need for manners.
My relatives taught me to demonstrate common courtesy by expecting me to demonstrate it and by role modeling it themselves. Somewhere along the way, though, adults became exceptionally averse to holding children and students accountable relative to any meaningful expectations. (And, FYI, standardized tests are not “meaningful expectations” when designed far more to assess teacher performance than student learning.) Now, everyone gets a trophy and everyone gets an A. No one learns to deal with adversity, to overcome an obstacle or to appreciate the value of hard work or even raw talent. No one is challenged. This only feeds a culture that doesn’t celebrate individuals as much as foster individualism.
Perhaps this is just evidence that I’m getting old. My grandparents ranted that kids of my generation were horrible and ungrateful compared to theirs. My mother does it, too. But, I remember feeling this way as early as middle school. I responded, “Yes, ma’am,” to a request from my English teacher, and she told me to stop being sassy. I was as stunned at her response as a sincere “Yes ma’am” was foreign to her ears. So, I am more inclined to believe that a lack of common courtesy is becoming more prevalent — even more tolerated. I hope to do better by my children. I hope they hold open doors, give up seats, work hard, fall down and get back up again. I hope they say please, thank you and excuse me. And, I hope they never see me or the adults they look up to do anything less.