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Articles

Ten years ago, native Texan Ruth J. Simmons published an essay entitled "My Mother's Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity" in the Spring/Summer 1998 issue of the Texas Journal of Ideas, History and Culture. At the time, Simmons was the president of Smith College; she became the eighteenth president of Brown University in 2001. Because we have received so many requests for reprints of her essay, we are pleased to offer it here, in celebration of Women's History Month:


Civility is a subject that is of great interest to me for a number of reasons—first, because I care about this country; second, because I feel responsible for young people; third, because I have the responsibility to talk to young people about the challenges they will encounter in their lives, and about what it will take for them to lead this nation and nations around the world. I think often about where our societies are going and whether, if they get there, they will be civil societies. Will the members of these societies be able to interact with one another on a civil basis? Will they be able to ensure the progress of humankind? Will they be able to nurture a humanistic and civil outlook?

The opening sentence of Chapter Thirteen of Stephen Carter's new book, Civility, addresses these questions: "If America is to be civilized in the twenty-first century, it must begin by civilizing its children, teaching them about the necessary balance between instinct and desire on the one hand and doing what is morally required on the other." I take this statement as a point of departure for writing about my own journey, in the hope that what I learned as a child may be instructive to others.

When I first became president of Smith College, I didn't think of myself as being particularly unusual. I had been a faculty member who, like many others, had come up through the ranks and had been in "training" for this position for a long time. Then, suddenly, I began to be asked questions from puzzled people. "How can someone like you," they said, "become president of a place like Smith?"

The first few times I got the question I was rather perplexed; as it continued I became a little annoyed. Eventually, however, I started thinking very seriously about the question in order to be able to say something meaningful about what I consider to be major influences in my life. If that could prove useful for young people, then perhaps, I thought, that was service I should provide.

My own life, like the lives of many women of my era, could not be called "planfully charted." I did not really think of myself as a very ambitious person, but I was intent on doing something productive and on being everything that my parents taught me to be. Their values were clear: Do good work; don't ever get too big for your breeches; always be an authentic person; don't worry too much about being famous and rich because that doesn't amount to too much. In short, just try to be a good person. And so I went about my life trying to take advantage of opportunities as they came along, trying to do good work to the extent that I could. If I did that, I thought, I would probably turn out all right—and that's basically what I have been doing all my life.

So, what about my life? Obviously, I was shaped by the time I was born into—born in 1945 in the small East Texas town of Grapeland, where my family had been sharecroppers for many years. In this era in which technology was developing to replace people in the fields, many Texans, African Americans and others, who were sharecropping began to leave the rural areas because of opportunities in urban centers for a different kind of work—laborer's work, certainly, but not the hard, brutal work of the fields. The sharecropper's life was, of course, a hard one for adults, but it was especially hard for children. Like the adults, children were subject to the whims of the seasons; whole families had to participate in the harvesting of crops, particularly cotton and peanuts, and children had to miss a great deal of school as a result. School was infrequent at best, and most children did not finish their education. When they could get to school, they got to school, and the schools worked with the families as best they could.

It was critical, then, that I came to elementary-school age at the time this system was changing. For me, it meant that my family was about to move to Houston, where I was able to enter the public schools–a move that made a big difference in the continuity of my education. Imagine this country family moving and going to the city of Houston! It was a difficult experience, initially, for us. Children laughed at us because of the way we spoke, the way we dressed, coming from a country town into the city. We were really poor then, but our family remained together and was a primary source of support in this transition.

In those pre-civil rights years, I was not hampered by expectations of achievement. A black child was not expected, certainly, to aspire to college; for the most part, colleges were not open to African Americans until the 1960s, when I was beginning to think about going off to school. Naturally, it would have been unseemly, even unthinkable, for me to aspire to this goal; no one I knew had gone to college, and certainly no one yet in my own family had been college educated. My early notions, then, of what I would do with my life had to do with blue-collar work as soon as my age allowed, my primary concern being to find a means of support as an adult—dignified work in the tradition of my family and of their friends.

I believe that the debate today about civility is frequently very wrong-headed. Many people have come to believe that our society is at risk because of some fundamental breakdown, either in the ways in which students are educated or in the manner in which children are formed or in how whole communities are formed. I don't believe these explanations are true and I would like to use my own case as an example.

The neighborhoods in which I grew up were brutally segregated—enforced, of course, by law. The very rigid social system did not allow the races to interact socially, or even in the workplace. Because every element of society was segregated, interaction with other races was unknown to me. If we went into town to shop, I saw white people there, but only at a distance. I saw people who employed African Americans, but I did not see them as people. I saw them as individuals with power, not as human beings with whom I could interact—and I certainly did not think that I would have the opportunity to interact with them later on. In the world I grew up in the boundary between blacks and whites was absolute; the possibility of crossing it was not within the realm of my comprehension. Later in life, then, it was a surprise to me to have come to a place where not only I have to interact with whites but in fact be a leader among them! Clearly, then, it is a very good thing that I had experiences that facilitated the crossing of that boundary.

Civility, I think, is very much about crossing boundaries. It isn't terribly difficult to be civil to someone who is exactly like us, someone with whom we have a deep affinity. It is quite another thing to be civil to people who are very different from us. In the days when the people of my community didn't have to interact with diverse people, we could be civil. We went to church and social events with the same people. The same people, all the time.

In those segregated neighborhoods of my childhood, everybody knew everything I was doing. Any neighbor could call my mother to tell her that "Ruth misbehaved in school today." The whole neighborhood knew, and they would tell. Civil behavior was therefore easily upheld. Still, everyone was courteous; civility prevailed. But what kind of challenge was that? None.

This is not to say that homogeneous communities live in "perfect harmony." Civility is not the same thing as harmony. Rather, civility is about membership; etymologically that is where it comes from—civilité—being a member of a particular entity. People who are members of a social group share familiar outlooks and goals. Being a member of a community does not mean that we like everybody; it means that we work to sustain membership through shared standards of conduct, shared norms which we generally agree to uphold.

Today, all this had been challenged. Many of our communities have been dispersed so that we no longer have the network of family and neighbors that we once had. I was lucky to have grown up in a time when people cared, when they were willing to take risks, selflessly, to make it possible for me to achieve goals they had on my behalf. I had teachers in high school who, from their limited pay, sent me money when I was in college. One teacher, knowing that I had no clothes, called me to her house, went into her closet, and gave me my clothes for college. These were people who wanted me to succeed in the worst possible way; they knew the odds out there, and they wanted me to overcome them. The homogeneous community evinced concern for its members.

Some of this network of caring still exists, of course, but we are more typically alienated from one another in ways that we were not in those days. Stephen Carter argues that membership is sustained and maintained because people want that membership, because they do not want to lose it. I agree that if people do not cherish their membership in a community, there are few controls on their behavior. Today millions of children in our society have little or no sense of this communal membership; as nonmembers, they are more than reluctant to accept its norms. How are they supposed to behave? Whom are they supposed to respect? What are they supposed to value?

Our children, of course, are not the only ones who are confused about community membership and common values, confused about how to be civil in a society that has changed in some fundamental ways. Now, we encounter people who grew up differently. We go to the market, see someone behind the counter, and tell him what we want. He answers; we have no idea what he is saying because his manner of speech is alien to us. Bewildered, we raise our voices; we speak louder. We get frustrated, and then angrily leave the store muttering: "What is this country coming to? These people can't even talk, can't even understand what I am saying!"

Such uncivil exchanges are replicated hundreds and hundreds of times in our daily lives, leaving us with the feeling that something has changed in our lives. Something has changed. Our social interactions are no longer the comfort they were to us when we were younger. We now have to deal with people from diverse backgrounds, people who are incredibly different from us. Why, we ask, do we have to do this? How can we be civil? When we have such encounters in our own neighborhood, what do we do? We feel anger, but we are not able to express that anger openly because to express anger about having to deal with different people is to be seen as a bigot, and bigotry is no longer acceptable in our culture.

The challenge for us in this country, and indeed throughout the world, is to be civil knowing that our future is changed forever, knowing that we will never go back to the times when everybody "looks like us." Never. Can we manage it? That is the question. And so the issue of civility is all about translating older and more familiar values into the much more complex environments in which we are forced to care about people who do not look like us, who do not understand us, who do not eat the same things we eat, who do not believe in the same God. We are not so sure that we can do that.

In the Fifth Ward, Houston, I was very poor, but I was very comfortably ensconced in a culturally and economically homogeneous environment. The deprived Fifth Ward is very close to downtown Houston, and you can see the commercial skyline from the area. I used to wonder about those massive buildings and all that must take place in them, but I really did not have to worry about venturing into that downtown world.

My parents insulated me from that world because they believed that I would never have to make the leap into that alien culture. Nevertheless, my parents were able to impart to me something of what it was like for them to have to respond to these different faces. Still, what could they tell me from their bitterly segregated world that could truly help me to make that leap? How could they adequately prepare me for the world that lay ahead?

There was one way for certain: My mother and father taught me some basic values that they believed would help me survive, wherever I found myself in life. They knew that I, as they did, lived in a hostile world; nevertheless, they believed they could teach me enduring values that would help me both appreciate and remain myself and also to be civil and to respect other people, irrespective of their limitations—and their hostilities.

They taught me these fundamental lessons in many different ways. One way was through religion, and we spent an enormous amount of time in our religious responsibilities. Lessons were also drawn from this tradition in our family. From this tradition we learned about the ways in which people from our past, including people within our family, had both succeeded and failed because of various shortcomings or strengths of character.

My mother, particularly, took the time to tell us the stories—stories about the woman who had made the mistake of having too much pride, about the man who had made the mistake of betraying a friend, about people who had fallen to great depths because of other flaws of character. And so my parents taught character by giving examples from the past. Not well-educated people—they finished eighth grade, probably equivalent to about two grades today—my parents were very, very wise.

Their wisdom continues to be an inspiration to me when I talk with parents who have been influenced by the absurd notion that somehow one has to be of a certain social class or have a certain amount of education to be an important mentor to one's children. I don't believe that for a minute. I am associated with elite higher education, yes, but when I speak to parents, especially poor parents, I always say to them: "You can be as good a parent as the wealthiest parent. You can teach your child the right approach to life, the right values to give them a lifetime of protection as they make their way through life."

As a student in high school, I was very much interested in academics and took advantage of every opportunity that arose. But something happened when I was fifteen, just a few weeks before I turned sixteen—something that would change my life forever. My mother died, and I was left to cope with this devastating event without formal grief counseling, and it almost undid me. As people who as children have lost a parent well know, the experience can be nearly overwhelming.

What I didn't realize at the time, though I understood it years later, was this: Though I was only fifteen, my mother had already given me everything that I needed in life. And so the answer to those questions people ask—What made me capable of leading a place like Smith? What made me what I am?—has become very clear. As I look around my life for answers, I know that my mother is the primary, the number one, reason.

So I want to say more about my mother and then come back to the issue of civility.

Often, when people talk about civility, they are looking for very elaborate explanations for ways that we inculcate values of stability and integrity. For me, my parents are evidence enough that we really do not need sophisticated answers. What we do need is to focus on the education, the formation of children from the time they come into the world, and we need to inculcate values that allow them to live their life decently, with a deep integration of moral teaching. Our primary task is to teach our children fundamental respect for other people. It is not possible to be involved in a hate crime if one genuinely respects people; it is simply impossible for us to perpetrate violence against other if we are respectful of human life.

I learned about this value from a very modest woman, my mother, who was a maid. Like most housewives of her day, she assumed the primary household responsibilities in our family, but because it was very expensive to rear a family the size of ours, she sometimes worked outside the home or took in ironing for extra income. And from time to time, when she went to work on Saturdays to clean houses, she would take me with her. Too young to be able to do anything useful, I was given the chance to watch, to observe her as she worked; I was given the privilege to observe a remarkable woman take great pride in her work and carry herself with extraordinary dignity, and with extraordinary kindness.

We see many children today who are very angry, angry at their lot in life. Some college students I encounter are angry beyond anything I can describe—angry because their parents did something to them long ago, because society has dealt them a harsh blow, because their financial aid covers only ninety-five percent of their college expenses, because they think they will not make their first million before they are thirty—angry about all kinds of things. If there is a person who had a right to be angry about her lot in life, it was certainly my mother. The sharecropper system was one of the worst systems imaginable, but the woman I observed went about her work as a maid with the greatest dignity. When she had to interact with her employers, it was with equanimity. She was a maid, but the way she carried herself required people to give her respect.

I learned at a very young age, then, that interacting with others on a civil basis, a respectful basis, depends not only on how they were raised; it depends mostly on how you were raised. My mother was raised to believe that you should afford people respect, but not only that. She also understood that you are entitled as a human being to have theirs. She knew, by her bearing, how to insist on that, to carry herself in such a way that she was respected, always. So when people ask me how I learned to be a leader, I tell them about this extraordinary person who taught me not only how to think about myself, not only how to interact with people irrespective of their path in life, but also about how to recognize the value of human beings and how to treat people, including myself, with fundamental respect. None of us can be a leader of much merit if we do not know how to do that.

I learned from my mother and from the way she worked how to care about my work—how to care about everything I do. I well always remember the ironing she used to do. There was no permanent press then, I will remind you—or steam irons. She would build mountains of ironing, and I would help her sprinkle every garment, roll each one up in a ball to keep it moist. Then she would begin the long and tedious ironing process. I remember her careful labor on the piles of cotton shirts—ironing the collar, ironing the horizontal piece across the back of the shirt, ironing the top and all around the buttons, one by one.

I always think of this scene when I speak with parents who worry that they may not be able to give their children the "best," and this is what I tell them: When I watched my mother iron those mounds of clothes and move the iron around those buttons, absolutely insisting that she do the very best job she could, that is how I learned to be a college president. You can teach a child to be a person of quality by showing them how you care for human beings, how you attend to your work, by showing them the standards you set for yourself. That is how you teach children. That is how we must all teach our children.

So I always say that my mother was by far the greatest influence on my life, and the person to whom I am most indebted. She was a wise and inspiring teacher, though she didn't have an education. She taught me to value no person on the basis of their material worth. She handed down stories of courage in the face of bigotry. She suggested a way for me to survive, in the midst of the acute intolerance in our society. She showed me how she could, with grace, magnanimity, and aplomb, carry out the most difficult and most unfulfilling work.

I turn, then, to Stephen Carter's statement about what we will need for the twenty-first century, and to the question of whether we will be able to save this country by nurturing a humanistic and civil outlook.

How will we save this country? We will be on our way when we make a commitment to becoming moral models for our children. We must teach people to have respect for one another by demonstrating that respect in the way we carry out our own lives, day by day, in everything that we do—by claiming our responsibility to one another, despite our differences. In short, we have to do all the things that a remarkable woman with an eighth-grade education was able to do for me. My mother helped me to go to Harvard to get a Ph.D. But I was ready long before I got to Harvard. I was ready because of the kind of start that I was given, right here in Texas.

What will we need for the twenty-first century? I would like to conclude by talking about the role that the humanities can play in helping rebuild a civil society. I am passionate about this topic, particularly passionate about how important it is for minority youth to study the humanities. And once again, I return to my own experience as evidence.

When I was a child, I had the instinct, somehow, to believe that the humanities and the arts could teach me something. I knew something was wrong with the world I lived in, knew this segregated society was not normal. I knew something was wrong when I would walk down the street and gangs of white boys would pass by me in their car and call me "nigger." I knew that there was a way to deal with this barbarism and to understand it, and I thought that, somehow, the humanities could give me a way to do that.

And so I studied theater and art and music and mostly literature, where I settled, because I needed to know the ways in which mankind had, over the centuries, responded to social change. I knew that I needed to understand this because I recognized that if I couldn't come to understand it I was going to go crazy—or kill somebody. Frankly, I just didn't see the sense of walking down the street, minding my own business and having people, for no reason whatsoever, come up and assault my dignity. I did not understand that, and I knew I needed something that would strengthen me in the uncivil world.

In pursuit of this understanding, I started taking languages in college and then decided that I could understand my own country better if I went to other countries and studied their cultures. So I did. Traveling to Mexico and living in France, I could see the incivilities of other countries and started to understand what was happening in my own. Part of what I saw was that they were just as messed up as we were! Cultural prejudices in Europe and elsewhere created the same outrageous displays of hatred and incivility as in the United States! Then I started to get it. It's not so much that Texans or people from the United States are uniquely flawed; it's that we are all flawed. And we all face the same great challenge: to try to learn how to overcome the uncivilized instincts that come so naturally to us, instincts to distrust, belittle, and attack anyone who is different.

This is the task of civilization and the promise of civil society. This is the task we must pursue relentlessly—in our homes, in our places of worship, in our colleges and universities, in all our civic institutions. This is ultimately what membership in the American community means—working together to nourish the civilizing influences that can render to us the capacity to interact with responsibility, moral integrity, and respect for ourselves and others.

For a time in South Africa there was great civil unrest; and in civil unrest, the rules disappear. Now, the people of South Africa know they must make a transition to a time when they will need other values, other norms of behavior; they know their society will not survive if they do not take this challenge with utmost seriousness. We are in a similar kind of transition, but we have not yet acknowledged how severe the problem is in our nation. Though there are some voices, few people are saying: "We have a problem." We will deal with this fundamental problem when we are prepared to say that we have a genuine crisis, and that together we must confront it.

As I was growing up, I thought that civility was something we were supposed to have, I didn't know that it was something we can learn. One can learn it. We can learn it. We can learn respect for others, no matter how different they are from us. We can learn—and teach our children, as my mother did—how to cherish our individual and collective integrity, even in the face of brutality. We can learn how to become human beings who claim our responsibility to nurture a civil society.

Can we tame and transcend our uncivilized instincts? Can we learn to cross boundaries imposed by cultural, ethnic, and religious influences? We owe it to our children and to our children's children to try. We owe it to those who, like my mother, never wavered in their faith in human betterment, and in their courage to work in its behalf.

To cite this essay: Simmons, Ruth J. "My Mother's Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity." Texas Journal of Ideas, History and Culture, 20 (Spring/Summer 1998): 20–29.

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons. Photograph courtesy of Brown University.