Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

`Character Education' May Become Need of '90s


LYING. Cheating. Stealing.

Recent incidents and several studies suggesting they are pervasive in the United States point out a need for ethics teaching in schools, education experts say.

About these ads

* Last month, members of Texas Southern University's marching band were apprehended during a trip to Tokyo for stealing $22,000 worth of tape recorders, pocket-size televisions, and other items from stores.

* In Santa Ana, Calif., the finance officer of a financially struggling school district was caught embezzling more than $3.5 million from the district over a six-year period.

* In November, the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina Del Ray, Calif., released a report on nearly 7,000 US students indicating that 61 percent of high schoolers had cheated on an exam in the past year, 33 percent had stolen something from a store, and 33 percent of college students said they would lie on a resume.

* According to a National Retail Federation study, shoplifting cost US businesses $24 billion last year, and only 3 to 5 percent of shoplifters are caught. Employee theft costs businesses about $9 billion a year.

As lying, cheating, and stealing continue to roll around on the pitching deck of culture, some authors, teachers, and professionals think character education will become a major component of teaching in the next decade. They say not lying or stealing is the right thing to do, and should be taught from that standpoint.

"Prudence says it's the smart thing to do, you know, good ethics make good business," says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. "Virtue says it's the right thing to do. I argue that what we need today is not more self-interest ethics, but more virtue ethics." Right vs. wrong

Mr. Josephson says that today's sophisticated rationalizations for behavior leave people not knowing what is right and wrong.

About these ads

"People don't get born into this world knowing what the rules are," says Robert Frank, a professor of economics, ethics, and public policy at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "It's very important to teach them, and I think that's been part of the problem - that we haven't been teaching people the rules anywhere near the same degree as we used to."

Josephson once did a survey for a private school showing that two-thirds of the students had cheated on exams. The administration did nothing about it. "Somehow people never believe it's their kids doing the cheating, lying, and stealing," he says.

At another school, more than 80 percent of the students said they had cheated. "When I talked with one of the teachers after the survey," Josephson says, "he said that if he stopped the cheating his students would be at a competitive disadvantage."

In the marching-band case, both Josephson and Mr. Frank suggest that the social context of behavior is important. "You can take an honest person and make him into a thief quickly if everyone [around him] is stealing," Frank says.

Charles Smith, a spokesman for Texas Southern University in Houston, said the band's behavior was "totally incomprehensible," and that many band members were being reprimanded, suspended, or expelled. But the university has no plans to use the incident as a trigger for discussions about right and wrong.

"A committee has been established to look into student travel," Mr. Smith says, "and that may include sensitivity training about other cultures."

Even though some studies indicate that lying, cheating, and stealing often afford a gain to a person, Frank argues that there are "moral emotions that motivate [ethical] behavior, and emotions are hard to fake" over a long period of time.

"Emotions," he says, "such as sympathy and guilt, are what support honest behavior. People whose moral sentiments steer them straight are different in a variety of subtle and observable ways."

In the spiritual and ethical dimension leading to living an honest life, values and definitions often differ. Last July, the Josephson Institute brought together in Aspen, Colo., 30 national leaders from youth-oriented organizations around the country. "We wanted to find a common language for discussions about ethics and character education," Josephson says. A need to teach values

After 3-1/2 days, the participants signed an agreement on six "transcendent core values," Josephson says. "Trustworth-iness, respect, responsibility, justice and fairness, civic virtue and citizenship, and caring. The [agreement] calls upon schools to abandon the value-free stance of previous decades."

A measure of the challenge ahead is shown in a footnote to the report of the Josephson Institute. The survey asked respondents if they had answered any questions untruthfully.

Forty percent of the high school students, 30 percent of the college students, and 21 percent of the out-of-school respondents said they were not completely honest in answering one or two questions.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.