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The Conservative Curmudgeon
August 2, 2012

Honor and Integrity, Once Valued and Transmitted, Are Increasingly Rare Today
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — Honor and integrity used to be important in the American society. This writer, as a student at the College of William and Mary, signed the school's Honor Code, which declared that anyone who stole or cheated would be immediately removed from the College.

This was the first Honor Code adopted at an American college. It reflected the values of our society. Honor was more valued than anything that might be gained from dishonor. Professors left the room when students took exams, and dormitory rooms were often left unlocked.

Now, our society seems to have embraced a different standard of value, or non-value. Consider just a few recent developments.

• 71 students at New York's elite Stuyvesant High School were involved in cheating on the state's Regents examinations in Spanish, U.S. History, English, and Physics. Stuyvesant selectively admits only the top tier of eighth graders. Stuyvesant High School did not expel the students involved in cheating — it did not even give them a failing mark for the exam. Instead, the students remained enrolled in the school and will be able to retake the exam.

Commenting on this, Frank W. Abagnale, the subject of the book, movie, and Broadway musical, “Catch Me If You Can,” declared, “We do not teach ethics at home, and we do not teach ethics in school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. In most cases, we do not teach ethics in college or even instill ethics in the workplace.”

• A report issued in mid-July by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, after an eight-month investigation, concluded that four of Penn State University’s most powerful leaders — including head football coach Joe Paterno and the school's president — covered up allegations of sexual abuse by an assistant coach because they were concerned about negative publicity. Confronted with reports that Jerry Sandusky lured boys to the campus where he sexually abused them, Penn State's leadership deferred to a “culture of reverence for the football program” and repeatedly “concealed Sandusky's activities from authorities.”

Freeh said that, "Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State."

• Congressional ethics, we know, is an oxymoron. Recently, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently released a report about how some lawmakers and their staff benefited from a "VIP" loan program not available to the public that waived fees, cut interest rates, and eased borrowing standards. Countrywide Financial offered the special loans in an effort to dissuade lawmakers from voting for stricter banking regulations. The report names names, with many lawmakers still in Congress. However, Rep. Issa did not include a letter calling for the ethics panel to investigate the matter. Without the letter, the ethics panel is not required to do a thing.

• In Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray has refused to answer questions about whether he knew, before or during the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary, about a secret, well-funded, and illegal “shadow campaign” on his behalf. More than $653,000 was unlawfully used to purchase materials and hire workers to secure his victory over Mayor Adrian Fenty two years ago — money allegedly supplied by a prominent businessman with significant contractual interests with the U.S. government. Mayor Gray's campaign slogan was “character, integrity, leadership.” Three members of the D.C. Council — and a host of others in the city — have called for the mayor to resign.

Many books have been written about financial misdeeds on Wall Street, and about child abuse and cover-ups within the Roman Catholic Church and among the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. While it may be true that bad news is news while good news is not, the bad news is increasingly widespread.

Our crisis in values has been building for some time. The May-June 1988 issue of The Harvard Magazine published an 11-page essay, "Ethics, The University, and Society," by President Derek Bok. He declared, "The American nation is greatly in need of some means to civilize new generations of the people, preparing them to serve as honest, benevolent, productive citizens of a free society, and all of Harvard's deliberations and studies and initiatives and earnest concerns have not resulted in any effective means of Character Education."

Derek Bok concluded: "Despite the importance of moral development to the individual and the society, one cannot say that higher education has demonstrated a deep concern for the problem... the subject is not treated as a serious responsibility worthy of sustained discussion and determined action... If this situation is to change, there is no doubt where the initiative must lie. Universities will never do much to encourage a genuine concern for ethical issues or to help their students to acquire a strong and carefully considered set of moral values until presidents and deans take the lead."

Things have deteriorated a great deal since then. It is not only the values of average Americans that appear to be in a free fall of decline, but those of our elites may be leading the way. Who in Washington or Wall Street — or at Penn State — is held responsible for what they did?

New York Times columnist David Brooks laments about the decline of today's elites. In the past, he writes, elites “had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence, and service.”

Today's elites, in Brooks' view, are “more talented and open but lack a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this. If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal, you get the same sensation from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.”

How to reverse our moral decline is not a subject that is being widely discussed in our contemporary society. It should be. If it is not addressed, all of us — and our children and grandchildren — will be the losers.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2012 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation