In Prospect

Summer 1996

Time was when pedestrian skills were a sign of true New Yorkerhood. Only out of towners blocked intersections, forced others from their paths, stopped dead in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Real Gothamites kept to the right, moved aside for the infirm and the burdened, and noticed who had the light at busy corners.

No more. Today the cosmopolitan orderliness of the streets too often gives way to random, jostling disorder. And not always random: how often have you found yourself scuttling out of the way of someone as intent on not adjusting his path an inch as Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, seething with resentment, was intent on bumping an officer in the street?

A trivial matter? By itself, sure. But how often are such trifles multiplied: the driver who cuts off pedestrians crossing lawfully; the sweating travelers in tank tops who, cursing loudly, push their way onto overcrowded subway cars or sprawl over two seats with sneakers stretched across the aisle; the talkers in movie theaters and concerts; the uncivil music that blares from ghetto blasters, boom-box cars, and neighboring buildings; the sullen incivility on both sides of transactions at cash registers or bureaucratic counters; the vile language flaunted by children, movies, even T-shirts; the characteristic tone of aggression that sounds from Wall Street to the mean streets to political discourse, as in, "It’s the economy, stupid!"

New Yorkers have always had an abrasive edge: muscular Gotham never wanted to be Mayfair. But an accumulation of incivility beyond mere feistiness makes life in our public spaces harsh and grating, the opposite of the energizing, life-enhancing experience that makes urban life special. When the VCR and the CD become more pleasurable than going out to the movies or Lincoln Center—or when life’s daily transactions produce friction that chafes—who needs New York? As Roger Scruton observes in his splendid "Why Lampposts and Phone Booths Matter" on page 90, the city is mankind’s great achievement, but it depends for its existence on the most elaborate rituals of courtesy and forbearance, the most exquisite mutual adjustments, to allow fractious human beings to live peaceably in such close quarters. Our mutual relations are governed not just by laws, in other words, but also by a code of manners and courtesy that is scarcely less necessary for the intricate mechanism of urban life.

We don’t talk much anymore about the art of living in a city, a polis, though that was a big part of what classical political theorists understood as politics. And we are surprised when political thinkers like Hobbes make manners a department of morals. Well, the cultural revolution of the 1960s really did turn American manners upside down as part of its push to let it all hang out and do it if it felt good. Feminism confused the elaborate courtesies surrounding the relations between the sexes, so that what we used to call chivalry toward those whom we used to call ladies is defunct, leaving behind anti-date-rape codes and condom etiquette. And now multiculturalism, with its stress on separateness and difference, inflames our sense of hostile, resentful division, rather than commonality. It’s a far cry from the days, yet in living memory, when public-school report cards used to give grades in "citizenship," "deportment," and "courtesy."

Not just manners are reeling, but also the institutions that teach citizenship: the family and the school. Our two illuminating cover stories on education shed much light on how to repair—and how not to repair—the damage. "The Invisible Miracle of Catholic Schools," on page 14, shows that a key to the extraordinary success of Catholic schools at educating the urban poor is the schools’ success at creating a community of civility and respect, of which each pupil can be a citizen—an important lesson for reforming the public schools. More darkly, "Special Ed: Kids Go In, But They Don’t Come Out," on page 27, shows how the breakup of the innercity family is creating a class of children who don’t know how to be citizens even of a classroom, and how the costly remedy we’ve devised—special education—doesn’t even begin to solve the problem.