The Exeter Bulletin — Fall 2012

The Noblest Character

Principal Tom Hassan spoke about the need for civility in our lives.

Nurturing the Seeds of Goodness and Civility

By Principal Thomas E. Hassan ’56, ’66, ’70, ’06 (Hon.); P’11

I believe goodness is inextricably linked to civility.  And as I outlined the Goodness priority for today’s Exeter, it was civility that I had in mind.

In fact, civility has long been seen as an important component to the character development of Exonians. In a 1911 issue of  The Exeter Bulletin, H.D. Foster, class of 1881, remembers that the evening prior to the college entrance examinations, Principal Benjamin Abbot called the college-bound Exonians to take tea with him. Foster recalled that “after taking a very light supper” (Apparently this student had expected a more elaborate meal at the principal’s house...I’ll remember that.) the departing students were given this final advice: “Be particularly careful to treat all men with civility and politeness.”

I don’t know about the late 1800s, but it seems to me that those twin qualities—goodness and civility—are in rather short supply today.

For example, reality television programs often encourage rude and even cruel behavior on behalf of their performers to increase ratings. In fact in a recent study done by the Girl Scouts of America, 70 percent of girls participating believed that reality shows “make people think that it is OK to treat others badly,” and 80 percent of all girls in the study believe that reality TV shows “often pit girls against each other to make the shows more exciting.”

How can we fight this trend? Good habits start at home.This campus—its classrooms, dormitories and playing fields—and even the places we travel to as Exonians during breaks and over the summer are where the seeds of goodness and civility can be nurtured.

In recent months, I have been intrigued by the writings of Pier M. Forni, an award-winning professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught for the past 20 years. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the writer describes Professor Forni’s moment of truth: “Pier Forni’s epiphany about civility came in the mid-1990s while he was delivering a lecture on The Divine Comedy. Gazing across the faces of his stu- dents at Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Forni realized that, far more than wanting them to know about Dante, he wanted them to be kind human beings. They might know every detail of the nine circles of Hell, but if they mis- treated an elderly woman on a bus, he told his students, he would be a failure as a teacher.”

Thus, in 1997 Dr. Forni co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, which is dedicated to assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society. Dr. Forni now directs The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, and he makes a strong point by saying he thinks it’s essential “to know about civility, not as a philosophical abstraction, but as a code of decency to be applied in everyday life.”

He goes on to say, “Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, [and] good manners....”

However, Professor Forni isn’t advocating a blind acceptance of the philosophies, ideas or perceived truths of others. He emphasizes that respecting others’ opinions doesn’t mean being untrue to your own. He points out that many people mistakenly believe that civility implies agreement. “Actually, it’s pretty uncivil to be dishonest,” he says. “Academics, in fact, are obliged to speak up when their views differ.”

Many of the attributes of civility described by Professor Forni are essential to be successful here at the Academy around our Harkness tables.We are exposed daily to models of civil discourse.We are fortunate to live and learn at a school that places the highest value on informed discussion and respects an individual for a well-informed and well-stated point of view.As one alum has said, an agreeable “me too” is not an acceptable or respected response in a discussion. Nor is the overly aggressive attitude of a so-called Harkness warrior.

Around a Harkness table or in a meeting at Exeter, people can disagree and discuss, confront and resolve matters in a constructive manner while remaining respectful of each other. Criticism is important, but it’s the delivery of it, without a dismissive or condescending tone, that is key.

So as we begin this school year, the 232nd year in the life of this Academy, I am asking all of us today, and going forward, to consciously and vigorously apply our Harkness model of civility and goodness to our lives at Exeter and beyond.And I ask that you, your peers and instructors talk openly about what these traits mean in your lives and in the interactions you have throughout this year and the years ahead.

In the end, each one of us will have to find our own set of actions, our own path to goodness and civility. And as we do, we will heed John Phillips’ notion to “form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”


Readers' Comments

October 25, 2012
9:41 a.m.
I showed the video of Tom's speech to a friend in her 60s who is not PEA-affiliated. Her very first comment: "It made me want to be fourteen again." Kudos, Tom, and thank you.
  — Russell Washington '89


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