Is this a nation of cheaters? We seem to be awash with them. Corporate executives cheat; athletes cheat; students cheat, beginning in middle school and extending into high school and college; and even teachers cheat. Are the seeds of adult corruption--for that's what it is--sown in the early years of schooling? Beginning in the '80s, there seems to have been a marriage of the me generation with Gordon Gekko's notion in the movie Wall Street that "greed is good." Did our admiration of wealth lead us to overlook, even forgive, the means of its attainment?
Many people seem to like beating the system, particularly if they see it as rigged or unfair. Nearly everyone feels that he or she pays too much in taxes and that others don't pay enough. The result is cheating on taxes to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Similarly, people watch illegal DVDs because they feel legitimate prices are "a rip-off," they fudge insurance claims because insurance rates "are sky high," or they pocket office supplies because "the company can afford it."
The climax of this epidemic of cheating can be seen in those multimillions of bonus dollars accepted by bankers and investment stewards who were deified while presiding over institutions they were busy breaking. Take the Bernie Madoff case, in which he reportedly confessed to relieving his investors of $50 billion through a Ponzi scheme that would have made Charles Ponzi jealous. One thinks back to the difference a hundred years ago when the legendary banker J.P. Morgan testified before Congress in 1912. Dismissing the notion that commercial credit was based on money or property, he said, "No, sir. The first thing is character. ... A man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom."
The supposed masters of the universe seemed to have lost a moral compass and the power of reason, borrowing unconscionable amounts in relation to their equity, circulating financial documents they didn't seem to understand. They have proved to be greedy pretenders who created a disaster and, in the process, ruined vast numbers of people.
In his brilliant inaugural address, President Obama said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility." Clearly, his administration will impose regulations to cover the shadow banking system that abandoned responsibility. But the president also called for us to "set aside childish things." Nothing is more childish than the conduct of athletic heroes like Barry Bonds using perforance-enhancing drugs to break Hank Aaron's home run record; Roger Clemens using anabolic steroids to extend his career; and New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick apparently having the practices of an opponent secretly filmed. Once upon a time, athletes were role models!
A sickness lies in our educational system. A nationwide survey of 36,000 secondary students reported in the Educational Forum found that 60 percent admitted cheating on tests and assignments. Furthermore, 80 percent of the 3,000 students chosen for scholastic recognition in the prestigious Who's Who Among American High School Students acknowledged cheating on teacher-made and state tests. In a Rutgers University sample of 24,000 high school students, 64 percent admitted to one or more instance of "serious" cheating on exams, and a whopping 95 percent confessed to some form of cheating in their high school careers. According to the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, 40 percent thought you could not succeed in the United States without lying, cheating, or stealing; roughly one third of boys and one fourth of girls admitted stealing from a store within the past year; and roughly 64 percent cheated on a test, while 38 percent did so two or more times. More than 1 in 4 confessed that they lied on at least one question on the survey itself. Yet, ironically, they have a high self-image: 93 percent said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character. A group of cheats who think they're angels!
Technology has made cheating easy. Students can E-mail homework to a network of classmates or text-message each other during exams. More than half of U.S. college students own up to some kind of cheating, not just copying other students' answers and crib sheets but using things like the term-paper mills on the Internet that proudly offer hundreds of thousands of essays that will meet virtually any college requirement.
Even prospective teachers being tested in order to qualify to teach in one state's public schools had to be thumb-printed because people had sent ringers to take examinations for them. This from those who are supposed to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer.
We must find a way to explain to kids how necessary it is to do the right thing and avoid what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviancy down"--that is, lowering the bar on bad behavior to make it acceptable. Young people admire President Obama. Let them heed what he said in such a timely manner.
- Read more by Mortimer Zuckerman.