Transforming the Culture

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

There was a time when pressure to make the grade provoked students to cheat. Now they don’t have to -- their teachers are doing it for them. Recently, it was found that 178 educators in dozens of Atlanta area schools doctored their students’ answers on standardized tests. And we wonder that our children are falling academically behind those in developed and developing countries?

As appalling as this situation is, it is only the latest symptom of a culture in moral decline. Whether it is CFOs cooking the company books, elected officials selling government favors, wives cheating on their husbands, or teachers cheating for their students, the evidence of ethical and moral decay is all around us.

Over the last four decades, its effects have been devastating: Enron, WorldCom, and a global economic crisis; Watergate, Climategate, Blagogate, and Weinergate; skyrocketing rates of divorces, single-parent homes, out-of-wedlock births, and feral youths running amok in gang-infested neighborhoods.

What to do?

We wring our hands over government corruption, corporate greed, and the breakdown of the family, but what’s to be done? How do we go about uprighting our morally capsized culture?

For far too long our first (and only) answer has been education: If teens are taught the risks of sex outside of marriage, they will choose abstinence; if couples receive premarital counseling, they will have enduring marriages; if business schools include mandatory ethics courses, their graduates will become ethical business people. In short, if we teach people moral principles, they will become moral people. But while education is important, it is not sufficient for making life-changing choices.

Compared to a few decades ago, the incidences of marital dissatisfaction, clinical depression, and personal debt have soared despite the dissemination of more information about healthy marriages and about being happy and debt-free than ever before.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks notes that “most diets fail” in spite of what most dieters know about the health risks of obesity. We live in a time when books on dieting and exercise have all but saturated the market, and yet obesity is near epidemic levels. Every Sunday “preachers issue jeremiads against the evils of adultery [or the sin de jour], but this seems to have no effect on the number of people in the flock who commit the act -- or on the number of preachers who do it.”

Conclusion: There is more involved in human behavior than processing information through rational thought.

A matter of habits

For instance, when faced with the temptation of indulging in an adulterous flirtation, our decision is not determined by exercising willpower in the light of what we consciously know. Rather, as Brooks would say, it is determined by habits we have assumed “that trigger unconscious processes,” that rig our course of action from the outset.

Consider the growing problem of student violence toward teachers. While some students have no hesitation mocking, cursing, or even striking a teacher, others wouldn’t dream of showing any disrespect to an elder -- they seem to have innate respect for authority.

“Where did that innate respect come from?” Brooks asks. He answers... Continue reading here.

Originally published August 15, 2011.

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