Columnists > Voices

Beyond the 10-finger strategy

Plugging the cultural leaks simply isn't working; it's time for a new plan

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

MY STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS: THE UNITED States can either turn to God this year, heeding a centuries-old invitation, or we can ply our chosen course and keep on trying to plug the dike with our fingers. "See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes" (Ecclesiastes 7:29).

Put the first finger in the hole created by today's child-rearing, where a generation that burst all moral bounds in its day raises a generation that has never been told no. The task is even harder because advertisers are spending billions in pitches even to kindergarten kids, who respond by asking for things by brand name before they can add and subtract.

That hole can be plugged temporarily in lots of ways. School systems can start alternative in-house educational programs like that in our local Cheltenham High, one of the 379 in Pennsylvania for dealing with chronic truancy, violent behavior, and multiple suspensions. They can send expectant mothers and court-adjudicated youth to high schools with specially tailored programs, like the one at Roosevelt High near me.

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In your own community, you can borrow the model of Community Education Partners in Houston, which since 1997 has been handling disruptive students on separate campuses, with modest success. You can establish a committee to consider new research by Kelly Kelleher of the University of Pittsburgh to the effect that depression, deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and other learning disabilities more than doubled from 1979 to 1996, corresponding to rising proportions of single-parent households. You can tack on its agenda a 1999 survey by the U.S. Education Department showing that one in four parents does not attend parent-teacher conferences, and a U.S. Census Bureau finding that in the absence of two-parent families, siblings are increasingly raising siblings.

You can start your own local chapter of Character Counts!, launched by California's Josephson Institute of Ethics and now used by about 400 school districts nationwide, to try to stem the tide of a "so what?" attitude toward cheating in the classroom. You can hustle a few virginity counselors into your sixth-grade health classroom (even if they are faith-based like Philadelphia's Urban Family Council) because discussion of condoms and safe sex just isn't working, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Judges can stick a finger in the hole of divorce with rulings in custody cases that "count" video-conferencing as part of the court-allotted time an estranged father spends with his children-and call it progress. Communities can require sex-offender background checks on coaches, such as the Little League baseball organization has been forced to do. Worried parents can select from an array of high-tech security approaches, including shoe tags and electronic leashes, to keep their children from becoming statistics with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Turning to foreign relations: Lots of countries have crumbling dikes. It will take lots of fingers to plug the holes around Haryana, India, which as a consequence of a generation of gender-selective abortions is running out of girls for its sons to marry; desperate citizens are even dropping the dowry tradition. Ditto for China, admits director-general Zhao Baige of the State Family Planning Commission: "When we started our family-planning policy 20 years ago, we had no idea of the social problems that would follow."

Jet-setters can hop a plane to South Africa, where one in five adults is HIV-positive, and sign up U2, Macy Gray, Shaggy, and other big-name entertainers to raise money for the AIDS effort. Don't mention that a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that all the combined magic of Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Boehringer Ingelheim have not been the panacea we had banked on. Consider the specter of 40 million orphans in Africa by the decade's end (there are now over 12 million) and the glum assessment by Peter Piot of UNAIDS that "we are only at the beginning of the actual impact on society of AIDS."

Back state-side, let's build more prisons, an industry that already employs more workers than General Electric. Buy gas masks for your employees from Mine Safety Appliances company and a clear polycarbonate mailbox for yourself so you can see if something sinister is inside. Install a filter on your computer to keep the tykes from porn. Join the effort in Pittsburgh where 600 families put out blanket-lined baskets as a hopeful alternative to dumpsters and garbage bags as repositories for unwanted babies.

Or ... we can all repent and turn back to the Lord and to sanity.


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