U.Va. Project Aims to Put the 'Civil' Back in Civilization

March 10, 2009 — Nearly 80 percent of Americans consider rudeness a serious national problem, according to a study conducted a few years ago by the opinion research firm Public Agenda. But with an assist from George Washington and "Miss Manners," a group of University of Virginia students is hoping to turn the tide.

As a young man, Washington was concerned enough with matters of propriety that he copied for his own use a set of 110 rules for behavior and conversation. More to the point, he seems to have lived by them.

"The Civility Project: Where George Washington Meets the 21st Century," soon to launch at U.Va., will attempt to set down 110 new rules of civility and manners for Americans. Anyone who wishes to participate will be able to do so via a soon-to-be-established Web site.

The Civility Project will be undertaken with organizational guidance from The Papers of George Washington, a Founding Fathers project based at the University's Alderman Library, and with the inspiration of Judith Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated Miss Manners column in the Washington Post.

Martin and Theodore J. Crackel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, met in 2005 when both were being honored at a White House ceremony. So when the Washington Papers staff recently discussed the idea of basing a project on our first president's famed "Rules of Civility," Crackel knew right away whom he wanted to enlist.

"I am absolutely delighted to have Judith Martin working with us on this effort," Crackel said, noting that the columnist will play an active advisory role. "We in the project and the students involved couldn't have a better adviser."

The kickoff for the Civility Project will be held in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at U.Va. on Friday at 10:30 a.m. Dean of Students Allen Groves will preside, and other speakers will include Crackel, Martin and Erica Mitchell, student chair for the project.

Mitchell, a third-year student in the Distinguished Majors Program, is majoring in history with a concentration in early American history. Since 2007, she has been a student assistant at the Papers of George Washington.

"I am enthusiastic about this project because of my own interest in the cultural history of Early America, " she said. "I believe social behavior has deviated too far from a basic level of general
respect for others, and I hope this project will give voice to those with similar concerns."

The kickoff is open to the public. Organizers also hope to enlist the help of students from other universities.

Survey results suggest that Americans are once again beginning to find boorish behavior a matter worthy of review.
"The critics agree: American manners are bad. Even the criticized agree," writes Martin, also the author of numerous books on etiquette and society. "It adds up to something being wrong pretty much everywhere."

Nor is Martin alone in her opinion about civility in modern America. Even such cultural icons as Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Seinfeld seem to be taking up the banner. Consider the following from oprah.com:

"It's time for a return to civility! In the November 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah asked Jerry Seinfeld about his biggest pet peeve. Turns out, it's a lack of civility. 'Nobody's ever said that as an answer in all the years I've asked that question,' Oprah says. Jerry's top three? Cutting people off on the road, BlackBerry or cell phone abuse, and interrupting while someone is talking."

For information, contact The Papers of George Washington at 434-924-3569.

About The Papers of George Washington

The grant-funded project was established in 1969 at the University of Virginia, under the joint auspices of the University and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, to publish a comprehensive edition of Washington's correspondence. Letters written to Washington as well as letters and documents written by him will eventually be published in the complete edition that will consist of approximately 90 volumes. Since its inception, the Washington Papers project has published 60 volumes.