Wrong is wrong, whether you’re rich, poor, young, old, president …
OK. Let’s review. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling at Enron. John Legere at Global Crossing. President Bill Clinton. John Rigas at Adelphia. What do these people have in common? For connoisseurs of scandal, the answer is simple: When caught with their hands in their respective cookie jars, they all resorted to one or another form of sickeningly familiar special pleadings. Either they really didn’t do anything illegal; or they did, but so does everyone, so they should not be singled out for punishment; or because of their particular circumstance, the rules did not apply to them. And what was the most common response? A shake of the head, accompanied by the mostly-rhetorical question “Where does this attitude come from?” Might I suggest that we’ve seen the answer?In a letter last week to the Summit Daily News, a Summit High School student employed all of the above rationale to argue that, despite violating the law, he should not be subject to sanction. He regarded appropriate and efficient action by the police to be “collusion,” and the entirely appropriate disciplinary action by Summit School District administrators to be a personal affront.
He readily admitted breaking the law. He admitted violating the school district’s good conduct pledge. But he evidently believed that since the punishment meted out would involve financial hardship for himself and difficulties for his classmates, it was somehow illegitimate. On why the possibility of incurring these difficulties and hardships did not deter him from illegal behavior, he was silent. This student is not alone in his sense of special circumstance. In fact, thinking of this sort is increasingly common. And that is an ominous thing.Let us be clear: Discipline and self-discipline are two vital ingredients for a successful society. Hopefully the latter is sufficient, but if it is not, the former must be applied. Together, they insure that human interactions involve the minimum amount of friction necessary, that social resources are conserved, not squandered, and that one is constrained from doing exactly as one pleases, even when no one else is looking.Traditionally, self-discipline was taught first in the home, then in a sort of collaboration between parents and educators: “Do your homework before watching television” is a form of discipline and instruction in delayed gratification. Formerly, the habit of self-discipline eventually replaced the external imposition. But nowadays, the system is breaking down.Where I lived previously it was football, and team members had a certain species of immunity. If their grades were low, instructors were urged to “do something.” If there were “incidents,” parents would pressure administrators to avoid meting out punishment, usually successfully. If there were problems of classroom discipline, it was never, ever, the students’ fault. This corrosive atmosphere did its predictable work: Over time, both academic and social education in the district was grievously affected.
Of course, there was the inevitable hue and cry over failing performance. What no one had the courage to tell the torch-and-pitchfork-carrying parents was that most of those responsible for the parlous state of education in their schools could be found in the bathroom mirror, so the district continues to suffer and so do its students.Doubtless there are readers who are shaking their heads at this point and muttering that ’tis a blessing to live in Summit County. If you are one, I have a sobering thought for you. While I salute the administrators of Summit High School and the District Superintendent for emphasizing that laws are for everyone and rules have a purpose, a student with four years of Summit High School under his belt thought his situation warranted special treatment. Specifically, despite breaking both the law and a personal pledge, he thought some negotiated “alternative punishment” would suffice in his case. What does this suggest about attitudes toward discipline among the students of Summit County?
We come here to the crux of the matter. If young people are led to believe that special consideration is their due, why should they think society’s rules are equitable? This is particularly a problem in a culture that increasingly teaches that we are all “special.” If that is really true, then all are entitled to a waiver of the rules – a recipe for chaos. There is a direct, bright line between the thoughts expressed by the Summit Daily News’ young correspondent and those of the men whose names opened this column. All have evidently forgotten – or never learned – the old lesson about personal responsibility: If one decides to do something stupid, one should be prepared to take lumps if caught. They all seem to believe instead that, if one is popular enough, glib enough, rich enough, then the rules do not apply. And that is a belief that should trouble us all.Summit County resident Morgan Liddick writes a bi-weekly Tuesday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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