All schemes for improving humankind appear to be hopeless. The masses are definitely not kind and, I fear, barely human. Where even quite ordinary individuals manage to rise above ordinary callousness, the moment they merge into a crowd, they become intolerant and intolerable.
Among other seemingly gratuitous pursuits, I have often pondered what could make man and womankind more human. Are there not enough kind humans around even to form an active core of gentility? For, of course, gentility would be the solution.
Gentility or, by its other name, manners. Optimists, if there are any of those, would assume that although intelligence cannot be generated, and stupidity thrives and multiplies even without teaching, manners, at least theoretically, ought to be teachable. Even dogs can be trained to behave as well as cats, which are fastidious by nature.
But what about people? Couldn’t they be taught good manners? To be sure, there have been elegant, seemingly well-behaved persons who, secretly, were criminals. Not for nothing do we have a play entitled “A Woman Killed With Kindness.” It is conceivable that even Dr. Mengele and Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) had good manners. On the other hand, can you imagine an off-the-field football team, let alone an army, with good manners?
Still, the majority of persons exhibiting mannerly behavior do this not as a cover-up, but because inwardly too they are considerate and gracious. With those people we have no problems. But can anything be achieved with instinctual loudmouths, boors, bullies, laggards, drones, know-nothings, mugwumps, fence sitters, the various kinds of fanatics or phlegmatics?
Probably not much. Nonetheless, what if, unlike what’s usual, we made an effort? Perhaps the real problem is not so much young rowdies as unqualified or nonexisting teachers. Heaven knows schooling of the traditional kind is generally either failing or not in the curriculum. As an intermittent college faculty member, I can vouch for the untutoredness of even elite school graduates, even by the time they are college upperclassmen. The rub is the lack of learning on the secondary-school level, and, no less drastic, in the home.
There have been times within human memory when parents were willing and able to teach their offspring a thing or two at home, or at least encourage them to become creditable autodidacts. As Jacques Barzun has eloquently pointed out, there is not much real teaching and learning in the schools; instead, there is an abstraction called education, windy palaver instead of getting down to brass tacks.
Given ineffectual parents and teachers, how could manners possibly be acquired? Good question, alas. Perhaps some kind of books could help: books on etiquette, if only they were wittily and charmingly written. Could even worthy works of fiction and drama influence mannerly behavior? Perhaps even certain games, in which finesse triumphs over brashness and opportunism.
I would like to think, for instance, that intelligent reading of Bernard Shaw’s plays might make a difference. Or any number of plays by Giraudoux and Anouilh, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, possibly still crying out for adequate translations. All of them are foreign; make of that what you will.
And, while I am fantasizing, just think what could be achieved if important phone calls were taken by courteous human beings rather than impersonal machines. If this makes me a Luddite, so be it. And what if computers and their e-mail spoke not some jarring jargon, but simple, good human language?
As I implied in the beginning, probably impossible. But couldn’t we at least try?