When America's first president was a young man, he copied for his own use a set of 110 rules for proper behavior and conversation in the 18th century. A new project at the University of Virginia, the Civility Project, is encouraging young people to review George Washington's rules and create standards of social behavior for Americans of the 21st century.
Washington was so concerned with matters of propriety that he carefully followed his rules of civility, says Theodore Crackel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.
"Washington as a young man, probably about 16 years old, read a book about an English general who had been a follower of rules of civility," he says. "And Washington sought out a set of such rules, copied them down and seems to have lived by them for the rest of his life… with few exceptions, I'm sure.
"Washington had a temper. Some people have suggested that in fact these rules of civility allowed him to sort of control his temper and his anger. It was one of the things that marked him as a great man."
Common courtesies still relevant
Washington's rules, Crackel says, had their origins at the end of the 16th century at a Jesuit college in France. They covered almost every aspect of social interactions, and, he adds, many are universal and still relevant.
"If someone else is speaking, be quiet and listen to them," he says. "If you're walking with other people, stay with them. Don't try to get out in front. If you are trying to talk to other people, talk to them in a proper tone of voice, in a proper volume."
Crackel says the cultural atmosphere of the 1700s encouraged and, in fact, expected civility… an ethic that he contends has changed over time.
"We seem to become increasingly busy, always on the go, doing things," he says. "It's interesting that technology has caused part of this. Life was a little slower-paced. Courtesies may have been a little bit easier to live by at that point in time, but life has gotten more complex in some ways and certainly more rushed. I think that has had a detrimental effect on our civility."
And, he suggests, there are times when modern Americans wish society was more observant of simple common courtesies.
"I think everybody is a bit put off by people who carry on loud cell phone conversations in areas where you're sort of a captive audience to what they're talking about to someone else," he says. "Also, I see people walking down sidewalks taking up the entire sidewalk and really not wanting to give way to people coming the other direction. It's sort of an analogue to driving, too. They do the same thing on the road. Sometimes, they feel wherever their car is on the road, that's their part of the road, and not giving consideration to people that are sharing the space with them."
Students to learn about Washington, adapt president's rules
To make a place for civility in our modern life, Crackel came up with the idea of The Civility Project at the University of Virginia. Subtitled "George Washington Meets the 21st Century," he says it serves two purposes.
"We want the students to learn about George Washington and the rules that he lived by," he says. "But second, we hope that this will be a set of rules that students will find they can adopt for themselves and live by them. And not just the students, but everyone, because I think that common rules that apply to young people also have an analogue in the lives of older people, too."
Crackel invited Judith Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated Miss Manners column, to be the advisor of the project. Martin gave a speech kicking off the project in March. So did University of Virginia junior Erica Mitchell, a history major and the project's student chair.
"I think people are going to realize that, 'Wow, these are the things we all need to be thinking about,'" she says.
About 35 students are currently working on the project.
"Right now, we're starting to advertise," Mitchell says. "We're trying to get the word out there as far as we can, to as many people as we can reach. We're working very much on sculpting the categories that we're going to use to kind of organize these rules.
"We definitely work to make sure that people understand that the project is not necessarily geared toward students, but instead, involves students as the people that are going to be selecting the rules."
Inviting students nationwide to contemplate civility
Reaching out to students beyond the University of Virginia, she says, is key to bringing different perspectives to the project.
"We don't want this to be 'the Virginia rules of civility' or just 'the Southern rules of civility' or something of that nature," she says. "We want to make sure that everyone has a chance for their voice to be heard on this project."
Students are invited to visit the project's Web site and submit their lists of rules. Historian and early American scholar Theodore Crackel says they will be accepting suggestions through the summer.
"Then in the fall, when the students come back, student committees will begin to work in these lists," he says. "And they will - from all the suggestions that we get; we think we will have thousands of them - they will then distill this down to a set of 110 rules.
It will be interesting, Civility Project members say, to see how Washington's rules inspire young people today. And no matter what the final list of 110 contemporary rules looks like, they hope the project will bring civility back into the American consciousness.