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Pervasive societal decline

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 3, 2004

Bill Cosby, left, appears on KCET/Hollywood's Tavis Smiley in Los Angeles on May 26 to explain his recent controversial remarks he made during a Constitution Hall bash commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education
Bill Cosby, left, appears on KCET/Hollywood's Tavis Smiley in Los Angeles on May 26 to explain his recent controversial remarks he made during a Constitution Hall bash commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education

When Bill Cosby dared to criticize the condition of parenting among lower-income blacks, many leaders of the black community took him to task for challenging the conventions of Political Correctness. An unspoken Iron Curtain has obstructed even black Americans from engaging in honest criticism about the need for other blacks to exercise greater parental responsibility. However, many blacks, including some who are leaders, were glad that Cosby spoke up even though they may not be in total agreement with his comments. They at least appreciate that he initiated an honest debate.

Bill Cosby did not need to stop where he did when it comes to criticizing our contemporary American culture. Some other things need to be said. For one, he might have criticized the widespread lack of honesty that pervades all levels of American society, including those children who come from some of our best neighborhoods and those who attend some of our most elite schools.

Case in point: The New York Post recently reported that ten Princeton University students were caught shoplifting within the last few months. Local prosecutor Marc Citron was quoted in a New Jersey newspaper: "Everybody wants to hide it. Nobody wants to think that a Princeton University student, a future secretary of state...would dare to commit a shoplifting...What troubles me is that some of the students feel that they are so privileged, that they have the privilege [to steal]. "

This is not the only time that Princeton students have been cited for lapsed values. Just last year, DailyPrincetonian.com columnist Aileen Nielsen wrote, "Without entering into details, I'll say that I've heard of several cases of theft between roommates (no, not borrowing a favorite sweater). I've heard of physical fights between roommates. I've heard of people waking up to hear a roommate having sex in the lower bunk. I don't think I know people who are unusually unlucky, so I'm pretty sure everyone has heard similar (or probably worse) stories from people who didn't get everything they were hoping for in a freshman roommate."

Miss Nielsen added, "If Princeton wants public perception to be uniformly positive about our students... we ought to make it clear exactly what we expect from students in personal behavior, and enforce these expectations at the level their underlying importance really demands."

The comments made to CNN.com a few years ago by a 17-year old student at a Virginia high school show that "doing well" no longer requires honest mastery of one's work: The better grades you have, the better school you get into, the better you're going to do in life. In addition, if you learn to cut corners to do that, you're going to be saving yourself time and energy. In the real world, that's what's going to be going on. The better you do, that's what shows. It's not how moral you were in getting there.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a survey a few years ago that measured cheating among students. Its results are disturbing, to say the least. The percentage of students who admitted to cheating on an exam at least once during the past year rose from 61 per cent in 1992 to 74 per cent ten years later. The percentage in 2002 who admitted they would lie to obtain a good job jumped from 28 per cent to 37 per cent in a two-year period. Nor did simply attending a religious school prove effective in countering this trend. The Josephson Institute discovered that student leadership and students attending religious schools shared many of the same attitudes that were held by the survey's other respondents.

That is only the tip of the problem. Teen promiscuity and its consequences that include use of birth control, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases can be covered up with money in more affluent families. So can alcohol and drug abuse. All too often young Americans -- regardless of race or class -- fall victim to such problems. Nevertheless, such problems are less likely to happen when parents make clear to their children that they are expected to behave according to a strict code of behavior and send their children to schools that reinforce those values.

The answer to this decline in the American character starts with the foremost institutions of our society: The family, for one. No one will have a more important influence over their children than parents will. They set the example by how they live their own lives. Too many American parents -- regardless of race or class -- are unwilling to set strict boundaries and to enforce them. Too many American parents have been unwilling to raise their children to respect the Judeo-Christian values essential to a stable, well-functioning society. Too many parents have been AWOL in their children's lives, failing to provide the guidance they need to lead honest, productive lives. Too many American parents have not tuned out the worst of contemporary culture, letting it come into their homes and influence their children.

Some young Americans appear to be recovering our nation's lost sense of moral purpose. Many have been home-schooled where they learned the three R's plus a fourth: religion. A fortunate few are able to figure it out for themselves, despite receiving the opposite message from their parents. Many attend religious colleges, including those such as Patrick Henry and Christendom College, and do so by choice because they adhere to stricter standards and moral absolutes. These younger Americans with a sense of moral purpose hold themselves apart from the worst of contemporary culture and mores. They expect to lead lives that honor God, country and family. We can be thankful that there are such young people. Indeed, we had better place our faith and trust in them because otherwise we will be at the mercy of young Americans who may, or may not, decide to do what is right.

Paul M. Weyrich is CEO and Chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.

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