We, the people of the United States, seem to have reached consensus about one important thing: 95 percent of us believe that incivility is a serious problem in the United States. Most of us feel that the problem has gotten worse in recent years. Many people want to blame the Internet, but the real problem is in our schools. They are failing to teach us how to have productive political conversations.
Civility does not mean that you avoid talking about sensitive topics. Civility means that you use conversations as a way to gain and share knowledge and to resolve conflicts. To be able to do that, you need some basic skills that are seldom taught in our public schools.
To promote civility, the ancient Greeks developed a curriculum of seven subjects: grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Those studies help young people learn to think rationally and to express themselves reasonably. The Romans called those subjects the liberal arts because they were considered appropriate for freeborn men, but not for slaves.
Ironically, many children in the Land of the Free are not being taught the liberal arts in public school. Grammar, in particular, has been deliberately suppressed. (Don’t blame your local teachers. These decisions are made by people far higher up in the educational establishment.) Unfortunately, if you have never studied grammar, you cannot begin to study logic. If you have never studied logic, you cannot begin to study rhetoric.
Grammar is not just a set of silly rules. Grammar is the study of how words are altered and combined to form meaningful sentences in a particular language. The ability to use grammar is what sets human beings apart from all other living species. It’s why people can talk and chimpanzees cannot, not even in sign language.
Students who have never studied grammar tend to have poor writing skills and poor reading comprehension. They find it hard to learn a foreign language. They also lack the basic skills that one needs for studying logic.
To be civil, you must learn to think logically. Logic is the study of arguments. It teaches you how to base your conclusions on evidence. Thus, the study of logic helps you learn to think for yourself, instead of getting fooled by propaganda. Once you have good skills in logic, you can begin to study rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the study of persuasive speech and writing. Persuasive speech, in particular, is called oratory. The ancient Greeks worked out the basic rules for rhetoric. Aristotle explained that there are three means of persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos means the use of facts and logic. Thus, logos is the only thing that matters in a purely scientific discussion. Pathos means feelings.
In making decisions, rational people use logos and then pathos. Logos helps them figure out the likely consequences of each possible course of action. Then, pathos enables them to choose the option that best suits their needs and their conscience.
Ethos means character, such as the reputation of a witness. Ethos carries no weight in a purely scientific discussion. However, it matters a great deal in everyday life. We often must rely on what other people say. The word of an honest person is worth far more than that of a habitual liar. Eyewitness testimony is generally more reliable than hearsay. The opinions of a professional scientist should carry more weight than those of a layman, at least in regard to the scientist’s area of expertise.
It’s hardly surprising that we have an incivility problem in the United States. Few of us have had any direct training in how to make logical arguments. If we cannot use logic and reason to persuade each other, what is left? Name‐calling, hair‐pulling, and fear‐mongering. No wonder our political discussions have become so ugly and pointless!
The cause of our incivility epidemic is simple: the neglect of the liberal arts. The solution is also simple. It starts with putting grammar back in grammar school. I give more details in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free. Training in the studies that are appropriate for free people is not just for people who want to become scientists or lawyers. It is essential for everyone if we hope to have a democratic society.