Civility and Global Citizenship

The 10th Annual Borromean Lecture
St. Charles Preparatory School
Columbus, Ohio

Delivered November 12, 2010

pres_jva_speech10Good afternoon, it is a great honor to have been asked to be here today, and to be among the distinguished speakers who have addressed the question of civility before this audience in this series of Borromean Lectures. I hope that my reflections today will add something to this important and ongoing meditation within the community of St. Charles Preparatory School on the nature, and future, of "civility."

Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English critic and the compiler of the first English dictionary somewhat offhandedly defined "Civility" as: "the state of being civilized: freedom from barbarity."

It's not a particularly expansive definition, but it certainly covers the essentials. First of all, civility is a "state," it is a disposition, an orientation. To be civil is to afford others a level of respect and dignity that you would wish for yourself; it is to prefer to engage in reasonable dialogue rather than to resort to violence or bullying in order to reach an agreement.

To be civil then, is to have adopted a mode of conduct, and inherent in that mode of conduct is respect for the laws and conventions that recognize the dignity of others so that we may live together with one another in a state of mutual felicity.

Civility is also - as Johnson points out - a kind of freedom, a freedom from barbarity. The rules of barbarity and the rules of civility are very different. The rule of barbarity is this: Basically, whoever has the most power, wins. When civility breaks down, what follows is social chaos - bloodshed, thievery, betrayal, you name it. We see this all the time. When one college roommate videotapes another college roommate and puts those images on the Internet in order to humiliate his roommate, we are witnessing the triumph of barbarity over civility, a barbarity that is not that far beneath the surface of civility most of the time.

So "civility" cannot be taken for granted; in fact, civility, as we understand it is not something that has always governed human affairs. It arises in the West as a virtue and an attribute to be admired at a very specific moment in our history.

As an historian, this is a matter of interest and concern to me. If civility - the freedom from barbarity - is a "state" that arises in a society out of a particular set of historical circumstances, then there is no guarantee that civility as a virtue to be admired will survive as historical circumstances change. At the very least, the notion of "civility" cannot be allowed to deteriorate into a static and empty set of rules, manners, or codes of etiquette, but must be actively and determinedly reinvigorated as historical circumstances change and our cultures evolve. We must continually rediscover the virtue of civility. That way, the freedom of barbarity that most of us enjoy will continue, and furthermore, we may be able to extend that freedom to those who have yet to enjoy it.

What I'd like to do today is to look forward toward the future, and ask some questions about what it might mean to be "civil" in the new world that we have recently entered, the world which has as its "principal new feature" what Pope Benedict XVI calls "the explosion of worldwide interdependence, commonly known as globalization."

But I'd like to begin by going back to another time of dramatic social change, innovation, and globalization - the era in which our idea of "civility" began to take shape. Roughly speaking, I'm talking about the 15th and 16th centuries, or the period that includes what we call the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation.

I want to share with you a bit of a letter written by Jean de Lannoy, a nobleman born about 1410, who served most of his life as an advisor to the Duke of Burgundy. At what was then the ripe old age of 54, Lannoy's wife bore him a son, Louis. Knowing that he would not live long enough to be able to give his son any instruction, Jean de Lannoy decided to leave a letter to be given to the boy when he was old enough to read it.

The basic message that the father conveys to the son is this: "For God' sake get an education - in particular, get a broad liberal arts education." That isn't precisely what he says but it certainly is the upshot. Here's an excerpt:

"Those who have learned and retained much, and who have the greatest desire to learn and know, attain great good, honor and riches. This has often caused me displeasure not for envy of them but, because of my simplicity and slight knowledge and because I was never put to school. I therefore know and can know nothing. I realize that this chance is for me lost and gone, never to be recovered.... No day passes that I do not regret this, and especially when I find myself in the council of the king or of the Duke of Burgundy, and I know not nor dare not to speak my opinion after the learned, elegant (lawyers) and (historians) have spoken before me. For I do not know the order or manner of speaking and can say nothing... Whence I have often felt deep shame and humiliation in my heart."

I find this letter deeply poignant. Here is a man from one age looking across a river that he will never cross, at a new age, seeing a world of ideas flowering on a distant shore, and knowing that it is a world in which he will play no part.

What had changed? At the time when the writer of this letter was born, Europe was still a late-Medieval society. It might not have been entirely barbarous, but it was pretty close. What held the social fabric together all over Europe were networks of fealty, kinship, and tribal loyalty.

The virtue that was most admired - where the governing classes were concerned at any rate - was prowess on the battlefield and power in general. So the qualities that were expressly admired in poetry and literature were physical courage, quickness to anger, sumptuous living, and passion. These networks of fealty were cemented by marriages, gifts of land, money, and titles. Education was at this period, in general, purely vocational. Clerics would go to university to learn Latin, medicine, or law for the purposes of serving as clerks in the bureaucracy of the Church or in court. But the idea of being educated for its own sake - as a matter of self-betterment or to increase one's capacity to make intelligent, persuasive conversation - would have been utterly foreign to Jean de Lannoy in his youth.

But within just a few decades, the world had been turned upside down. Christopher Columbus would soon reach the West Indies, and other explorers would open up new worlds for trade and exploration. Nicolaus Copernicus would establish that the earth was not the center of the solar system; Johannes Gutenberg had developed a printing system that would make books and therefore information and ideas, readily available. In fact by 1500, printing presses would print more than 20 million volumes - the greatest explosion in the dissemination of information in our culture's history, until the Internet.

Simultaneous with these discoveries and inventions would be a rediscovery of the works of Classical antiquity, and these Classical authors read in the original Greek would introduce novel ideas about what a society should be, what it meant to be a citizen, what was virtuous and desirable, and what was not.

The rediscovery of the Greeks - their arts, poetry, history, and philosophy - was like discovering a treasure trove of lost ideas that were better and more intelligent than the ideas that had been floating around before, and it happened at a time when the economic and social fabric of Europe was loosening up.

To try and summarize the impact of this rediscovery would take us too long, but let's just say that, combined with the charitable traditions of Biblical Christianity, what was underway was a revolution in thinking about what a society should be and the emergence of the idea of the virtue of civility. The British Classical historian Gilbert Murray summarized the Greek influence on the thinking of the West this way: "an unquestioning respect for freedom of life and thought, a mistrust of passion...a sure consciousness that the poor are fellow-citizens of the rich, and that statesmen must as a matter of fact consider the welfare of the whole state."

So, a very different set of values than those that poor Jean de Lannoy - who never went to school - grew up with.

What is also so wonderfully highlighted in this letter is how essential education is to civility. The young "lawyers" and "historians" who were now in ascendancy were men who were educated in Greek and Roman literature; they would have learned rhetoric - the art of speaking persuasively. They had acquired the tools that were necessary to be successful in this new age, and they had the "desire to know," a love of knowledge for its own sake, and the capacity to continue to learn, because they had acquired a cultivated mind. With that cultivated mind came the freedom to think, and speak, for themselves.

One figure who would be profoundly shaped by this shift in values from the culture of barbarity, to the culture of civility, was Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of which I am a member - and again, it is education that is at the heart of this transformation.

Ignatius, born in 1491, was, as you may know, a soldier - a Spanish nobleman from the Basque country who very much embraced the warrior culture as a young man. After being seriously wounded at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, he recuperated at home and during his long and painful recuperation he turned to reading. A book on the life of Christ, De Vita Christi, had a profound effect on him - particularly the book's suggestion that the reader use their imagination to place himself in Christ's position. From here, Ignatius went on to read other books and was converted to a religious life.

But what kind of religious life? For the next 20 years, Ignatius would be a student, at first learning the basic grammatical and language skills that we would now consider a secondary education, and then going on to the University of Paris, where he studied philosophy and theology.

Along the way the nature of Ignatius vision of his own spiritual vocation would be transformed. What Ignatius came to appreciate was two things: That God was in effect educating him along the way, providing him with opportunities and challenges that expanded his mind and his understanding, and this he believed was true for everyone. God was the educator, par excellence, and what He taught us to do - if we were open to becoming educated - was to understand the nature of the world and respond to it in a truly authentic, and essentially civilized, way.

And second, Ignatius would come to see the importance of a religious life that reconciled nature and grace, human culture and religion. He would develop what is famously called a "world-friendly" spirituality, as opposed to the monastic and ascetic spiritualities that were characteristic of an earlier period.

The emphasis for Ignatius always, was "to help souls," and so as the Society of Jesus came into being, it was always oriented toward working with people in the conditions in which they found themselves in the world - as opposed to retreating from the world.

Indeed, one could say that Ignatian spirituality was a marriage between the traditions of Christian spirituality, and the world-embracing culture of civility that had displaced the warrior culture of Ignatius' youth.

The Society of Jesus got into the business of running schools almost by accident. In 1547, the city fathers of Messina in Sicily asked the Jesuits if they would open a school to teach their sons the basics - by which we mean the humanistic liberal arts, including Classical rhetoric, poetry, and drama - that were characteristic of the Renaissance grammar schools, and were believed to be uplifting to students, and of a benefit to the society at large. This mission was consistent with Ignatius's vision of an order that would "help souls" by educating them and preparing their minds for an encounter with the truth. Later, one of the early Jesuits would explain to King Philip of Spain that the reason the Jesuits believed in education as a religious mission was that "the proper education of the youth will mean improvement of the whole world."

In other words, educated persons will make the world a better place because they will naturally be inclined to improve the world around them, take leadership positions in society, and do so with the background in civility that a liberal arts education would give them. He continued in his letter to the King: "Those who are now only students will grow up to be pastors, civic officials, administrators of justice, and will fill other important posts to everybody's profit and advantage."

Education was the rage in this period. St. Charles Borromeo - a contemporary of Ignatius - was deeply influenced by Jesuit pedagogy, and understood that a civilizing education was critical to the reformation of the Church. Among his many efforts that contributed to the modernization of the Church was the establishment of seminaries, colleges, and communities for the education of men entering holy orders. In effect, he too believed that the "proper education" of men entering the priesthood "would benefit the whole world," and that an educated clergy, imbued with the humanistic values of civility, was essential if the Church was to keep pace with the pace of intellectual and cultural change that characterized the age.

By 1773, the Society of Jesus would operate 800 educational institutions around the globe - the largest network of schools the world had ever seen. Many of these schools were established in the New World and in the Far East, areas that had only recently been able to be reached by Europeans. One of the distinguishing features of the early Jesuit missions to these regions was openness to the nature of these newly encountered cultures.

There's no question that the Jesuits believed it was their duty to spread the faith, but they also found that they learned so much about the nature of God, and the nature of men, by the profound differences they encountered in the cultures of what is now China, Japan, and India. This appreciation - that God is at work in every culture and that there is a limitless amount to learn about the truth through an openness to other cultures and their customs and languages - is without question a characteristic of those who have been educated in the liberal arts, by which I mean, those whose minds have been expanded through an encounter with other minds from other periods, and whose minds are supple enough to see the world through fresh eyes.

So civility, and education, go hand-in-hand. This is not to say that the more "educated" you are, the more civil you are, as anyone who works in a university can tell you. But it does mean that in general, to be open to the otherness of the other, to be able to listen and learn from what another person is saying without taking offence, to be able to be persuasive in argument, and tolerant of ambiguity and unresolved questions, are characteristics we acquire in general through an education that shapes our minds to perform in this manner.

So, what of the future? As I mentioned earlier, it seems clear that what we understand as "civility" is a "state" that arose in a particular period in our history, and in general, it has gone through modifications and, perhaps, degradations, but that tradition has continued to a large extent.

But there is no guarantee that it will continue. There are many positive dimensions to the "explosion of interdependence" that we have entered in the last few decades with the transformative impact of the Internet, the globalization of our economic institutions, the capacity for the instantaneous transmission of information, and so on. But these changes also present challenges.

In April of this year, in Mexico City, the Society of Jesus held a conference of Jesuit educators from close to 200 Jesuit-run universities and colleges from all over the world. At that time, the Superior General of the Society, Adolfo Nicolas, posed a set of challenges to all of us who work in Jesuit higher education. He asked us how we were going to educate young men and women to meet the challenges of this new, global century.

In effect, he asked us how we were going to continue the Jesuit tradition of educating young men and women to be "for others," in a way that took into account the currents and frictions of globalization.

At Fairfield University, where I am the President, we think a lot about these questions, and we see our mission as the education and formation of "global citizens," meaning young men and women who can operate freely across the boundaries of language and culture, who can think broadly across disciplines, and penetrate deeply into areas where they have no prior knowledge, because they have acquired the habits of mind - the intellectual rigor and the generosity of imagination - to be able to do so.

We are carrying on the Jesuit tradition of education, and adapting it as best we can to meet the challenges of our time.

What are these challenges then? Well, Fr. Nicolas identified a number of them, but I'm going to focus on three of them that I believe pose tremendous challenges to the future of "civility" and our understanding of what it will mean to be a "civilized" person in the 21st century.

The first challenge is what Fr. Nicolas identified as the spread of two rival "isms" - by which he means aggressive secularism "that claims that faith has nothing to say to the world and its great problems (and which often claims that religion, in fact, is one of the world's great problems)" and on the other hand " the resurgence of various religious fundamentalisms" which "escape the complexity" of the world as it is today by taking refuge in a religious faith that is closed to dialogue, and "unregulated" by human reason.

In times of great stress and uncertainty, it is not unusual for groups that feel that they are marginalized or oppressed to take refuge in a belief system that insulates them from insecurity, so we must approach this kind of fundamentalism with understanding - and not with contempt.

And we have to understand that religious fundamentalisms are not necessarily primarily religious expressions at all, but are always interwoven with political and nationalist agendas and perspectives. As we encounter these fundamentalisms, as civilized persons, we need to be able to penetrate these distinctions and understand them - and not rush to judgment. That way, there is always the possibility of dialogue and shared understanding. We must not meet these fundamentalisms with a fundamentalism of our own.

At the same time, we need to make sure that the big, meaning-of-life questions that can only be encountered through spiritual reflection: "Why am I here?" Why is there something rather than nothing?," "What is it that I am called to discover about the world?" are not ridiculed or reduced to absurdity by the aggressive secularism that is so prevalent in many of our cultures. To me, the mark of a civilized person is their capacity to be comfortable standing a in a place of creative tension between what they can ascertain through reason and their apprehension of the mystery of Being that is beyond the confines of reason, or the confines of any particular religious expression.

So I think that to be "civil" in the future is to be one of those who can operate comfortably â€" without repulsion or anger - in this difficult area where "faith and human knowledge, faith and modern science, faith and the fight for justice" meet.

Second, and critically, the challenges of the future will be global challenges - the threat to our environment; global economic growth; the issues surrounding the migration of people in search of a better economic future; hunger, poverty, health, and disease - all of these are global issues that require solutions that transcend boundaries of nation, culture, and language. This may have always been true in fact, but now we live in a time when these boundaries are more porous than ever. I say to you that as people who would claim to be civil - and therefore to be responsible for our role in the upkeep of civilization - that we need to expand our understanding of what it means to be a citizen so that it has a global embrace. As you go on to study and to learn and to seek a career, I think you will be challenged to conceive of your place in the world as a global citizen, not just a citizen of the United States. This means we need to find ways to share our knowledge and resources with those areas of the world that need what we have to give.

Just as you would not let the person in the house next door starve to death, it is time for all of us who would hope to be considered civil, to embrace those suffering elsewhere in the world as our neighbors, and to accept that we have a responsibility, as global citizens for their welfare, and education.

Finally, what may be the greatest challenge to civility in the future is what Fr. Nicolas called "the globalization of superficiality." As he said: "When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one's reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one's blogs or micro-blogs;... when the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perception and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking world of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited."

All of you who have seen the recent film "The Social Network" about the rise of Facebook will know exactly what I'm talking about. Isn't it ironic that we can make friends with total strangers, learn everything about them, carry on intimate conversations, and then "de-friend" them with a click of a button?

When relationships are shaped in this way, without the "hard work of encounter, or if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation - then relationships can also become superficial."

I alluded in my introduction to the death of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate posted pictures of him on the Internet. I'm sure you can all think of hundreds of other examples, perhaps in your own life, when the social media that binds you and connects you to others has also caused you pain and embarrassment, and made you feel unwanted and unimportant. The new social networks and technologies have not necessarily led to deeper relationships, or a greater appreciation of the dignity of the human person. Instead, they appear to have contributed to an ongoing objectification of human person. As Fr. Nicolas pointed out in his remarks to us in Mexico, the inner world of our students are being shaped by these technologies that emphasize immediate communication, but not necessarily deep communication, or true relationship. When that happens, people lose their ability to engage with reality as it is, or with other people in the fullness of who they are, and we find ourselves returning to an every-man-for-himself kind of culture, and to the shackles of barbarism.

I would suggest that "civility" in the 21st century is going to require the hard work of finding, maintaining, and deepening real relationships with one another. This is why I believe that the model universities of the future will be places where there is as much emphasis placed on building community as there is on what goes on in the classroom. Certainly at Fairfield, we put our students together in living and learning communities with programs to ensure that they really get to know one another, that they have real relationships, that they understand that they have the potential to hurt other people by their actions, and to inspire them too.

We also create opportunities for our students to go out into the world as mentors and teachers, both in our surrounding communities and in service learning trips to the Philippines or Nicaragua, where they encounter their neighbors who need what they have to give - it's an amazing moment when a young man or women realizes that they can truly transform the life of a child by teaching them to read, or by encouraging them to write a poem. These real encounters are an important part of a liberal arts education now more than ever, because they cut across the "superficiality" of our culture and inspire true creativity in our students - the capacity to care, and hence to take responsibility for themselves as creative citizens in the world.

In closing: "Civility" as we understand it, is our inheritance - certainly the most priceless inheritance that we share as members of this society. For most of us, it is an inheritance that we pick up without any conscious effort, and so it is easy to fall under the impression that civility is fundamentally unassailable - carved in stone - and that it has always been at the heart of the way we have conducted ourselves. But this is not true. Civility as we understand it arose at a unique moment in our history, and has endured thanks to the men and women who have insisted over the centuries on a more civilized, compassionate, and just way of life than the barbarism that is the alternative. And there is no guarantee that this inheritance will continue - unless men and women of vision insist that it do so.

At one time, perhaps, the barbarians were literally at the gate - and from time-to-time they are literally at the gate. But it is the casual barbarisms of our culture that - I would suggest - pose the biggest threat to our inheritance.

The temptation to abandon reason and tolerance in the face of aggressively hostile fundamentalisms, and to retreat into our own narrow definition of community; the refusal to extend civility to our neighbors who are suffering, impoverished, and in need of the knowledge and resources that we have in so much abundance; and the "globalization of superficiality" that is an undeniable dimension of the ways in which we have come to interact with one another, are among the biggest threats to our civil society in my view.

And as always, it seems to me, the surest way to address these threats is through education. Education and civility are in a relationship of mutual dependence. Without education, our traditions will not endure, and if they do not endure, our appreciation of the value of a truly enriching education will likewise fall away. It is our schools and universities that are charged with the responsibility of forming young men and women so that they appreciate the inheritance that has been left for them, and so that they have the intellectual acumen, the passion for justice, and the depth of personhood, to extend the habit of civil behavior into these troubling frontiers that I have discussed today.

As educators, the responsibility falls to us to ensure that the students under are charge are offered the living and learning environments where they can discover the profundity of their own being, and so come to recognize the dignity of all God's creation and so their unique, personal responsibility to live and work in the service of their fellow men and women. If we apply ourselves to this responsibility earnest, then I believe we will not fail. I'm certain that the community of St. Charles Preparatory School shares my conviction in this matter, and as is so often the case with clergyman, I'm sure that I have found myself this afternoon preaching to the choir.

Thank You.