Opinion: America needs new emphasis on civility

October 8, 2012


Civility — respect for the opinions and needs  of others — is a requisite for a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, it is in short supply in the United States, and our nation’s leaders deserve a good portion of the blame.

Exhibit one: The 2012 presidential campaign has been ugly on both sides. The numbers tell us that more than 70 percent of the ad money has gone to negative messaging. In one 14-day period in July, 90 percent of the ads criticized their opponent.

Another set of numbers gives us a related narrative: Americans see the lack of civility and don’t like it. They believe it is hurting the country and the tone is being set by our leaders.

Two-thirds believe that candidates spend more time attacking their opponents than addressing issues; 80 percent are frustrated by the tone of the political discourse; and 64 percent believe the negative campaigns harm the political process. That’s just background. The central points are that almost two-thirds believe this country has a larger civility problem and nearly 70 percent think that politicians have a negative influence on how people get along.

Exhibit two: At the beginning of the school year, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were closed for the first seven days of the academic year. The reason: a teachers’ strike that followed ten months of negotiations between the mayor and the teacher’s union.

To put the magnitude of the work stoppage in perspective, here is more about CPS.

It is the nation’s third largest system. It  enrolls 350,000 students, employs 26,000 teachers and support staff, and operates 578 schools. Almost 90 percent of the students come from families below the poverty level. The high school graduation rate is 60 percent. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test (the nation’s report card), of CPS’s eighth-graders: Only 26 percent scored proficient or better in math; only 23 percent scored proficient or better in reading; and only 7 percent scored proficient or better in science.

The strike received national attention. Politicians at all levels weighed in.  Newspapers ran front-page articles and published editorials. The Internet, television and radio covered it extensively. Three stories emerged and were repeatedly explored, discussed and analyzed. The strike was a long-anticipated showdown between labor and management. The strike was a test of strength between factions within the school reform movement. The strike was part of the ongoing national battle (with a few interesting twists) between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.

Here’s what’s wrong with this picture: Sadly, few in the political, policy or media worlds talked about the tragedy of children, primarily poor children, being locked out of the classroom. The needs of the students were treated with dismissiveness. While the leaders argued about compensation, health benefits, teacher evaluations and job security, students lost precious learning time. Both sides say the lost days will be made up, but no one yet knows how or when.

Coincidentally, on the second day of the strike, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued its 2012 Education at a Glance report. (This analyzes and compares educational achievement in approximately 30 countries.)

Here is one of the major findings: “In Italy, Portugal, and the United States, young people from families with low levels of education have the least chance of attaining a higher level of education than their parents.” In other words, when we fail to serve our students, the chances are that we visit that same failure on their children. In Chicago we may have harmed not one, but two generations.

This lack of civility is hardly new in America. There have been times in our history when elected officials have literally come to blows with one another. But the modern world has altered the dimensions of the problem. And the reason is technology. Lack of civility was once between individuals or among smaller groups. For the most part, it could be contained. Not so anymore. Messages can be sent to millions instantaneously. Virtually anyone can initiate or receive the information. And anonymity is easily kept.

Many of us were told as children that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We should retire this saying. Unless our leaders rein in their rhetoric and start acting with consideration toward others, we run the risk that we will all follow their lead.  If that happens, the civility that binds will be replaced with the lack of civility that divides.

— Gene Budig is the past president/chancellor of three major state universities, including Kansas University and former president of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a vice president at the College Board in New York City.


Carol Bowen 1 year, 6 months ago

In defense of Chicago's teachers, we know very little about the negotiations. I don't recall much information on the points of discussion. In Lawrence, we live in a protected suburban bubble. Many of you have no idea how stressful teaching in the inner city can be, except for Hollywood glimpses. What would you do to work a student riot, simple refusals to cooperate, fights, poverty and abuse issues? Have you ever thought about disarming a student? If the teachers were negotiating for smaller classes or resisting performance measures, take a look at the total picture. They're not talking about sports complexes up there.


BABBOY 1 year, 6 months ago

All kidding aside, this is a serious issue.

Look at what happened at Arrowhead last Sunday.

I should clarify cause some of you many not know that Arrowhead is where the KC Chiesf play football. I forgot this a political thread full of obsessed geeks that only care about the election and their own issues on everything.....

Geeks, google KC QB cheered for being injured and you will see what I mean.

I agree with that there is seriously something wrong with people in today's world.

I blame the internet........


Flap Doodle 1 year, 6 months ago

The current regime is striving to use Big Bird as a shield to keep from having to answer questions about Libya and the economy.


beatrice 1 year, 6 months ago

Interesting that a debate Romney "won," and the talk is all about how Romney wants to pull the plug on Big Bird.

The fact that PBS is the ONE cut Romney was specific about in his plans to lower the deficit and debt speaks volumes to undecided voters, particularly women.


Flap Doodle 1 year, 6 months ago

Sesame St. pulls in some major bucks from character licensing. They could cover what the feds have been kicking in to PBS out of petty cash.


Constitutional_Malfeasance 1 year, 6 months ago

Now rock chalk, many here were raised on Sesame St and Mr Rogers and feel a bond that many Obama adoring journalists feel. Romney stepped over the line. :-)


rockchalk1977 1 year, 6 months ago

Big Bird will not be anyone's political puppet. Sesame Workshop has asked the Obama campaign to take down a new TV ad that prominently features the famous talking bird, in a satirical spot mocking Mitt Romney for calling for an end to PBS subsidies. "Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down," Sesame Workshop said in a statement. As a pro-union Chicago community organizer, Obama is the anti civility candidate in this election. That's just who he is.


atiopatioo 1 year, 6 months ago

Timely tweepers....

New civility: Obama supporters threaten to riot if Romney wins; Update: Deleted tweets Posted at 12:15 am on October 9, 2012 by Twitchy Staff | View Comments


Constitutional_Malfeasance 1 year, 6 months ago

00-08.......not a very civil era. Amazing what the skin color of the president can do.


CWGOKU 1 year, 6 months ago

I'll blame the media........... all of this is ratings driven And blame El Nino


Agnostick 1 year, 6 months ago

tbaker 10 hours, 13 minutes ago

"Lack of civility is a bi-product of a deeply rooted sense of entitlement. With this in mind it is no wonder the Chicago teachers reacted the way they did when threatened with reductions in their compensation and benefits. The first and foremost characteristic of public service in all its forms used to be a strong commitment to selflessness, an awareness that one was serving a greater good bigger than his own self-interests, hence the term “public servant.”

"That’s long gone of course and has been replaced by simple greed and the selfishness that drives it. The long list of the Chicago School’s dismal performance metrics is a stark example of this. A more compelling argument for the implementation of a school voucher system to empower the parents is hard to find."

I guess bringing in all this high-&-mighty (self-)righteousness.... think-tank theories... and $5 words is a great way of impressing the masses, and stroking your own.... ego.... in the process.

At the end of the day, though, lack of civility really just means that your parental unit(s) didn't give a tinker's damn about teaching you anything.


Armored_One 1 year, 6 months ago

And, ironically, multiple posters have willingly demonstrated exactly what this article is stating. There is a distinct lack of civility in this nation, from the ground up. There are probably dozens of individual causes, none of which have any looming impact, but one that stands out in my mind is the lack of respect from younger generations for the older ones.

Yes, I know, that is a common complaint of ever generation that is no longer the "baby", but in all hoenst truth, there is more vulgarity, more bald-faced rudeness, and a general lack of acceptance for the older generations in the current 'crop' that is in high school than ever before. Granted, that is just my opinion, but have you ever stopped and listened to some of the conversations that they have in public? I admit my generation wasn't exactly what I would call poster children for Emily Post, but there is a limit, or at least there should be.

I made the mistake once, and once only, calling my mother a nasty word that started with a B. I promptly found myself sitting on the floor, the side of my face hurting pretty good, and my grandmother standing over me, flat threatening to knock either some manners into me or the attitude out of me.

A simple test.

Go into a grocery store, or better yet a gas station, and just listen to the customers and the cashiers. The interaction definately fails to cut the mustard in terms of politeness, what with people having phones surgically attached to their face these days. Even those that aren't on the phone still don't use a simple "please" or "thank you". I pretty much doubt that most any cashier truly appreciates being told thank you or being asked with the word please, but I do use those words.

Sadly, I have to remind my nearly grown children to use those words, especially if they have spent any amount of time recently with their friends away from my oversight. I admit that I had to be reminded a few times in grade school, but that reminder was usually followed with a silent threat of some form of punishment, and the habit stayed.

I am positive that there will be many that disagree with me, and I'll be honest and admit that I could truly care less if they agree with me or claim I've got bats in the belfrey. But I will still be polite about telling them to take a flying leap.

I don't want, in any sense of the concept, everyone to always agree. Bite me, b**w me, and other such endearing comments don't really accomplish much, though. All it does is torque the other person and people that are upset and/or angry rarely pause to give thought to what the other person has said. If you don't believe me, make your teenager mad than try to have a logical discussion with him or her about something. You'll get flat ignored, at best, nearly every single time.


jafs 1 year, 6 months ago

Civility would be very welcome, from where I sit.

But, it doesn't mean we can't vigorously discuss and debate things, and it shouldn't mean that people have to let lies and misrepresentations stand unchallenged.

So, for example, when Romney or Obama lies, they should be held accountable for that.

Without, I hope, unnecessary personal attacks/insults.

The truly sad thing about the Chicago situation is the comment that 90% of the families with children in public school there are below the poverty level. That's almost certainly a result of more well off parents taking their kids out of public schools.

How exactly teachers and the school system could get these kids to a higher level of achievement without significant costs, both in and out of classrooms is beyond me.

If we really care about these kids, then we should support not only the public schools, but also a range of programs designed to help the families, and help the parents be more involved with their kids' education.


tbaker 1 year, 6 months ago

Lack of civility is a bi-product of a deeply rooted sense of entitlement. With this in mind it is no wonder the Chicago teachers reacted the way they did when threatened with reductions in their compensation and benefits. The first and foremost characteristic of public service in all its forms used to be a strong commitment to selflessness, an awareness that one was serving a greater good bigger than his own self-interests, hence the term “public servant.”

That’s long gone of course and has been replaced by simple greed and the selfishness that drives it. The long list of the Chicago School’s dismal performance metrics is a stark example of this. A more compelling argument for the implementation of a school voucher system to empower the parents is hard to find.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 6 months ago

Civility and civilization have been a challenge for centuries. While there is no good excuse for present behaviors, our discourse used to be terrible back in the day. Remember "Apeman Lincoln?"


atiopatioo 1 year, 6 months ago

America needs more normal civility like OWS rallies.

More American normal like expressed towards Stacey Dash.

Actress Stacey Dash Endorses Romney, Liberals Fling Racist Insults

In his speech to the Republican National Convention earlier this year, actor Clint Eastwood told the assembled crowd that there are more conservatives and moderates in Hollywood than they might think. Such people “play closer to the vest. They do not go around hot dogging it,” Eastwood said.

Unfortunately, actress Stacey Dash is finding out the hard way what happens to those celebrities who are willing to think for themselves: they get attacked by the very people who claim to preach “tolerance” and “peace.” (Note: This blog post is “not safe for work” and certainly not for children.)


Satirical 1 year, 6 months ago

Kansas Liberal... "You're not being helpful."

Really? ; )


Satirical 1 year, 6 months ago


I absolutely agree. Team (D) has a monopoly on honesty and truth. They are the only ones that care about America. Team (R) lies about the color of the sky, hates America, and eats babies for breakfast every morning (with milk of course). Only with this mindset --that one side is absolutely and unequivocally right, and the other side is pure evil-- can we ever reach civility, and stop this willful ignorance. Four more years! Four more years!


KansasLiberal 1 year, 6 months ago

"The 2012 presidential campaign has been ugly on both sides."

That may be technically true, but the republicans have been lying about Obama while the democrats are just exposing the ugly truth about Romney and Ryan. There's a BIG difference, and saying "both sides do it" is simply willful ignorance.


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