Social scientists and television talking heads babble about "role models" and how important good ones are for kids. Keep that in mind as you consider this development:
A new survey of 12,000 high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics reveals that the number of students admitting to cheating has jumped from 61 percent in 1992 to 74 percent today. It was bad enough in 1992, but over the rest of that decade what happened to make things worse? Are even worse things in store?
Michael Josephson, head of the institute, sees the rise in cheating as a portent: "The scary thing, " he says, "is that so many kids are entering the work force to become corporate executives, politicians, airplane mechanics and nuclear inspectors with the disposition and skills of cheaters and thieves."
Scary, indeed. Parents and teachers seem unable to stem this anti-ethics tide or to keep the kids from being impressed by the likes of the foul-mouthed Eminem or violence-promoting gangsta rappers.
In the Nineties, as the dot.com and telecom bubbles grew, more and more investors suspended disbelief, pouring money into new fad companies. The officers of some of these companies had no ethical compass, as we have seen lately by the collapse of such erstwhile giants as Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing and Tyco. These were all start-up companies, even Enron which, although it had operated gas pipelines for some time, was into a new business, sleight-of-hand energy-trading contracts. What none of them had was a corporate history that involved a tradition of solid business ethics. The greed of the CEOS, CFOs and other senior officials of these companies was monumental, as were their egos. They believed they were invincible until, that is, their various bubbles were pricked by reality and burst.
What do, say, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco and an increase in student cheating in the Nineties have to do with one another? This: the nation's role-model in chief in those years was Bill Clinton, the man whose sole aim in life was to be elected president and, four years later, reelected. He succeeded, but for those eight years, ethics took a walk at the White House. Policy was shaped by polls. Several of the women with whom Clinton carried out adulterous relationships were subjected to systematic efforts by his confederates to destroy their reputations and/or intimidate them into silence.
In those days, big contributors were rewarded with trade mission slots and Lincoln bedroom stays. Al Gore hustled campaign money on White House telephones. The Clinton machine solicited large illegal contributions from China, Indonesia and other overseas sources -- apparently with the blessing, at least tacitly, of the hustler-in-chief.
Moral relativism and the belief that the end justifies the means were the rule with Clinton & Co. Can this have escaped the attention of impressionable young people? If "anything goes" was the philosophy in the highest office in the land, did that not make it seem all right for everyone else, at least to some school kids?
Psychologists say that adolescence is a time when boys and girls are shaping their adult personalities by subconsciously drawing characteristics from their parents and other adults in their lives. In other words, from "role models." When adults in positions of high responsibility, such as presidents and heads of large companies, operate without ethical standards, it is, to borrow Mr. Josephson's phrase, "a scary thing."