Letter from NEH Chairman, Jim Leach


For many, concern for civility seems either unimportant or sanctimonious. Actually, civility is an enduring value of civilized society. At issue is how individuals interrelate in community and how societies make decisions that can affect life on the planet.

For the ancient Greeks, civility involved a bond of polis, a sharing of principles and a commitment to live justly within a city-state. Today, civility remains the heart of civilization. It provides the prospect of avoiding, dampening, even resolving conflict, whether in the neighborhood or in the international arena.

Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn’t mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. Indeed, argumentation is a social good. Without argumentation there is a tendency to dogmatism, even tyranny. What civility does require is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on each other.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one political party. If all men are created equal, surely it follows that all citizens are entitled to have their views respectfully considered in the public square. Public decision making seldom lends itself to certitude. That is why humility is a valued character trait and why civility is an essential component of civil society.

America will have great difficulty leading the world in the interconnected century unless we civilly rearm, not with intolerance for others, but with faith in traditional American ideals—honor, dignity, love, or at least respect for neighbors, near and far. As Lincoln noted in words borrowed from Scripture, a house divided cannot stand.

Jim Leach




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