Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

'Keep the numbers up!'

Society decides to tolerate those who lie, cheat, and steal

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

I'm working on a short novel about a serial killer. Don't look for it-the bulk of proposed fiction never sees print. I mention it now only because of an observation made by the protagonist early in the story. He's recalling how his mother once covered for him when he cheated on a high-school chemistry exam, revealing the fundamental hypocrisy of "the system":

"Grades and awards are quantifiable, that's the key: call it the Worthy Child Index, the WCI. When moms get together at Little League games or PTO carnivals, you never hear them brag about their kids' goodness. It's more how Heather was recommended for the GT program or Jamie took first place in piano at All-city. They all say, Be good. What they mean is, Be better. Better at basketball or math or chess, even if you turn out to be a jerk. They want something to measure success by, like an SAT score. Better an evil genius than a loser."

Though something of an unreliable narrator, the young man has a point. We live in a relentlessly quantified society of test scores, investment returns, time clocks, tax brackets, actuarial indices-and surveys. Hardly a month goes by without some disturbing report about our physical or emotional health, measured in percentages; the latest is the Josephson Institute's "Ethics of American Youth" survey, released early in December and widely reported.

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The results are not encouraging: Of 30,000 teenage respondents, at least one out of four confesses to stealing from a store or a friend, one-third admit to lying, over half cheat on a test at least once per year. And over 25 percent admitted to lying about their answers on the survey. Hard on the heels of the report came reasons why our youth are so morally compromised. Stress is a big one-the scramble for high test scores and GPAs, not to mention retail stuff.

But what kind of signals are they getting from the grownups? This fall Loye Young, a junior professor at Texas A&M International University, warned his students that he would flunk and expose anyone caught "lying, cheating, or stealing." When he followed through by posting the names of plagiarists on his website, he was fired for violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The F he awarded students who submitted others' work as their own is being reconsidered by an honors council. According to Young, "People here are being told that students should be babied and that we need to keep 'em to get enrollment and state funding. . . . I want students to actually know something."

Schools need their enrollments. Investors need their 15 percent return. UAW members need their benefits. Corrupt politicians need their quid to match contributors' quo. Banks need their bailouts, after squandering their assets. If any battle cry summarizes our real values, it's "Keep the numbers up!" Our obsession with quantifiable returns has swamped us in numbers so inflated as to become unimaginable. A trillion here, a trillion there-is this real money, or have we crossed the line into fantasy?

Kids today are stressed, subjected to a politically correct education, deprived of admirable role models. But that's not why they lie, cheat, and steal. Far from a new phenomenon, the youth of any culture at any time are naturally inclined to deception-see Genesis 8:21. The difference is how we address it.

In the late '90s, a concern with lack of virtue in the young led some school districts to adopt "character ed" programs. Though well meant, the approach reduces virtue to another subject to check off the harried teacher's lesson plan. Good character is not quantifiable and is best taught where the system does not (or should not) intrude: home and church. Children are immortal souls with deceptive hearts in need of correction. In our eagerness for them to pass the test, to raise the stats, to keep the funding-we forget to ask if they've learned anything.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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