A new teacher asked the class what their parents did for a living. When it was Jimmy’s turn, he stood up and said, “My father is an exotic dancer in a strip club.” The teacher gasped and quickly changed the subject. Later she took Jimmy aside. “Is what you told the class true?” she asked him. “Is your father really an exotic dancer?”
“No,” Jimmy replied, blushing. “He’s really an auditor for Arthur Anderson, but I was too embarrassed to tell the class.”
Arthur Anderson, Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Adelphia… What a difference a year makes. A year ago these names would have evoked an image of corporate strength, fiscal giants, mainstays of the American financial image.
And today when you hear these same names? Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Arthur Anderson, Adelphia… It’s as if the ultimate American stereotype is spinning out of control – it’s the Wild West gone corporate – the Lone Ranger turned bad, Dirty Harry gone really dirty. The CEOs and CFOs and Presidents of corporate America tuning in to only one station - WIIFM – WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME.
Looking out for number one – and damn the consequences for the tens of thousands of hard working Americans who put their faith, and trust, and futures in their hands. The average Americans came up empty while hundreds of millions of dollars continued to go directly into the pockets of those same CEOs and CFOs and corporate Presidents.
Faith has taken a big hit. Faith, and trust, and integrity – the very ground upon which all of American business and society as a whole is based. How did we get here? Where are we going? And what difference can you or I make?
How we got here is simple. We got here because we have allowed WINNING to become the highest value of our society. WINNING. Not excellence, or character, just winning. The evidence is all around us, from our schools, to our sports fields, to our political races, to our businesses.
Look at the world of sports. We continue to pay Mike Tyson millions of dollars because millions of us are still eager to watch him enter the boxing ring, knowing that he is a convicted rapist and abuser of women. Why? Because he wins? Character, sportsmanship, integrity are irrelevant. And we act as if this has no effect upon our children, and the values of our society as a whole.
Look at all the scandals that have plagued the last few Olympic Games. Integrity, character, and sportsmanship once again took a back seat to “winning at any price,” from skating to gymnastics to weight lifting.
Michael Josephson wrote of the sad irony he experienced when attending the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, knowing that the Olympic Creed holds that the most important thing is not to win but to take part, not to conquer but to fight well – while seeing Nike posters everywhere throughout the games proclaiming, “You don’t win the silver, you lose the gold.”
We all know that the term “Amateur Athletics” is practically an oxymoron. The pressure to win in college athletics has become so great that “everybody does it” has become the mantra of nearly every college in America. It is commonplace for coaches and booster clubs to break any ethical rule in the book if it helps them recruit players who will boost their chances of winning.
Just two months ago a major Southern newspaper chain ran a four-part series detailing how the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association fosters a culture of cheating among teams. Of the five schools that won conference championships in the South West Conference, all but one were put on probation for misconduct by the NCAA.
Eight South Eastern Conference members have also been penalized. Nine times for major football rules violations, and six times for men's basketball team infractions.
Just this year, both Alabama and Kentucky were slapped with serious NCAA sanctions. NCAA investigators are exploring Arkansas' football program, and LSU has launched a probe into its football program as well.
Former Auburn Coach Terry Bowden, now a college football analyst for ABC Sports tells the stark reality: “The numbers bear out that it has now become a culture of cheating.”
“A culture of cheating” – and we wonder how we ended up with Enron? The real problem is that our “culture of cheating” doesn’t begin with the pressures of Wall Street, or the drive to make millions within professional sports, or the competition to win among college teams.
It doesn’t even start in our High Schools, or our Middle Schools, or our Elementary Schools, all of which have become depressing reflections of the denigration of character and values in our society. No, I’m afraid that the “culture of cheating” begins at home.
President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a person in the mind but not in the morals is to educate a menace to society.” And that is exactly what we are all doing.
We do just about anything to make sure our kids get into the very best schools. With an “ends justifies the means” mentality, we lie about where we live, and think it’s nothing, and our kids know it.
Lying has become so commonplace in our society that it’s almost an everyday occurrence. It’s usually such a “small lie” that we hardly even notice the climate of cheating, the expectation that dishonesty in one form or another is “normal” that we are passing on to our children.
It’s the simple things that matter most. These are where the real-life lessons are taught, and learned. When you tell your kids you’ll be home at 11 from an evening out, and you don’t come back until 12 – you are teaching your children not to value integrity. That keeping their word isn’t really that important.
When someone calls whom you don’t want to talk to, and you make your kids lie and tell the person you aren’t home when you are standing right there, it seems trivial, but you are teaching them that lying is ok.
So we shouldn’t have been surprised by the results of the Josephson Institute of Ethics “Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.” When they surveyed 8,600 high school students 71% of them admitted they cheated on an exam at least once in the past 12 months. Almost half said they did so two or more times. Of course at the same time, 90% of parents surveyed claimed their kids would never cheat.
By the way, 92% of kids said they lied to their parents in the past 12 months as well. And nearly 8 out of 10 said they did so two or more times. 78% lied to a teacher and more than one in four said they would lie to get a job. A “culture of cheating.”
The most blatant example was when Piper High School in Kansas made the news last year after teacher Christine Pelton failed 28 students in her Biology class. She discovered they plagiarized their term papers.
Instead of their parents being angry with their kids for cheating, they were outraged at the teacher for hurting their children’s grade point average and compromising their potential college admissions. The student’s parents rallied at the next School Board meeting, demanding that the teacher be disciplined for victimizing their children.
And amazing as it sounds, the school board sided with the parents. They ruled that the students would receive partial credit for the project and that it would now count for only 30% and not 50% of their grade allowing many students to pass the course who otherwise wouldn’t have.
The entire affair so disgusted the teacher that she resigned after the school board handed down its decision. "I went to my class and tried to teach the kids,” she said, “but they were whooping and hollering and saying, ‘we don’t have to listen to you anymore.’” A “culture of cheating” with parent’s blessing. The sad reality is that our “culture of cheating” has been making headlines almost every month this past year. Some of the nation's top historians, including Stephen Ambrose, have been accused of borrowing passages from other authors without proper credit. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis was suspended without pay for a year from Mount Holyoke College after lying to his students about serving in Vietnam. Notre Dame University football coach George O'Leary resigned after falsifying his athletic and academic achievements on his resume. We are creating a “culture of cheating.” Cheating at Dartmouth college; cheating at the University of Virginia; cheating at Georgia Tech. We are creating a “Culture of cheating,” and it leads inexorably to Arthur Anderson, Enron, WorldCom. This is a profound and fundamental moral challenge. Because the undeniable reality is this: Character is taught at home. You are always the number one moral model for your children, and they watch you and learn from what you do every single day of their lives. You cannot tell them pay attention to what I do on Monday, but don’t watch me on Tuesday.
Indeed, there is no greater truth about the power of parenting than the words of James Baldwin who wrote: “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Or Robert Fulghum who said, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.”
And when we live our lives as if “winning” is the most important thing – it becomes their highest value as well. And when “winning” becomes our children’s highest value, we are raising the next generation of corporate pirates in our own homes.
You can do something about it. This “culture of cheating” that seems so rampant in our society. This obsession with winning that has grown so out of control.
A few months ago we saw Thomas Junta, the father of a 10 year old ice hockey player in Massachusetts convicted of beating to death the volunteer coach and father of another child on his son’s team when a fight broke out among the kids on the ice and Junta didn’t like the calls the other dad was making.
Is it any wonder that 6.5 million boys and 3.5 million girls are involved in fights every year in America? And 4.5 million more kids are threatened with bodily harm each year.
The American Justice Department says this month 1 out of every 4 kids will experience severe abuse from another youth. Our children watch what we do. Our children hear how we talk about others. Is it any wonder that they act the way they do?
You see the most important job you will ever have, is the job of being a parent. You might be a CEO, or a CFO or a President of a multi-national company – but your most important job, and your hardest job, is still the job of parent, and it applies to anyone who is a primary adult figure in the life of a child.
So here are 5 things you can do immediately:
1. Be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to be. At the end of every day ask yourself, “If how I acted today is how my children will choose to act every day, what kind of world will I have created?” And if you don’t have kids, you ask yourself: “If everyone acted everyday as I did today, what would the world be like?” Albert Schweitzer said “Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.” 2. Act with integrity – keep your word – to kids and adults. Former Senator Alan Simpson once said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
3. Identify your core values – discuss them as a couple, a family - write them down – post them in your home – and use them as guidelines for your own ethical choices on a daily basis. Or write an ethical will for your children – the values you’d want to leave them as your legacy – their “spiritual inheritance.” If you need help, check out Character Counts.org for their “6 Pillars of Character,” William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, or come meet with me.
4. Make ethical behavior a family affair. Create family ethical action projects. Participate in one of KI’s many Tikun Olam task forces, volunteer at a school, or shelter, hospital or non-profit. Teach your children the power they have to make a difference in the life of another.
5. Teach your children that life has meaning. After all, that is ultimately what religion is all about. That’s what our synagogue is all about. Use it. Come yourself. Bring your family. To learn. To celebrate. To pray. To remember that life has meaning if you live it as if it does.
Teach them the simple wisdom of my favorite story in the Talmud. Of the two men in a rowboat out in the middle of the ocean. One man takes out a hand drill and begins to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other man freaks out and begins screaming at him, “What are you doing? What are you doing? You’re drilling a hole in the boat!”
The man with the drill looks up in surprise and says, “Why do you care? After all, I’m only drilling under my seat.” In our world, there is no such thing as “my seat.” We really are all in the same boat.
If we are to learn a lesson from the financial scandals of these past months – perhaps it ought to be the words of Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel who wrote, “In a democracy only some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”
Legendary banker J.P.Morgan was once asked what he considered to be the best bank collateral. Without hesitation he replied, “Character. Character.”