Wednesday, December 3, 2008

If their elders cheat, the young learn early to cut corners

With daily news awash with stories of American politicians, business executives, sports celebrities and other public figures cheating, lying and stealing, what logical conclusion can be drawn about young people who fashion life after their elders?

They, too, will lie, cheat and steal.

The gravity of a moral and ethical breakdown in U.S. society among adults and young people has become a major concern, best illustrated by a new study conducted by the Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based organization whose mission is "to improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision-making and behavior."

After interviewing 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected U.S. high schools, Josephson's survey found that 30 percent of the students had stolen from a store and 64 percent had cheated on tests.

In reflecting on the widespread dishonesty among students, institute founder and President Michael Josephson wondered aloud, "What is the social cost of that—not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers? In a society drenched with cynicism, young people can look at it and say, 'Why shouldn't we? Everyone else does it.'"

Plagiarizing work of others for school assignments is high, too. The survey found that 36 percent of students admitted to it.

Some educators believe pressures on today's students to participate in extracurricular activities and sports as well as to achieve scholastically have led to decisions to cheat to get by.

"We overload kids these days and they look for ways to survive," said one. Another believes "we need to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer."

The parallels between student dishonesty and the outrageous conduct on Wall Street and in politics are obvious. The pressure to make fortunes or to win the next election can lead to felonious breaches of ethics and laws. Customers are cheated, voters deceived.

The most egregious form of this cheating has become an industry—political spin-doctors who fabricate negative stories about opposing candidates and compose elaborate fictions about the achievements of their client candidates.

Volumes of criminal laws will never fully eliminate cheating with the "spin."

In the end, ethical behavior is built on a strong personal code of honesty, first taught by parents at home. Parents can raise ethical young people by giving them the following words to live by:

"Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking."

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