Sunday, December 07, 2008
This is the headmaster's address to JPII students on Monday, December 8, 2008.
You are liars, cheats and thieves! Despite this fact, you believe you're persons of good character, which means you’re also hypocrits!
So says a recent national survey of teenagers, the results of which were made public last week.
The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured.
The key findings from the survey:
30% of teens acknowledged stealing from a store.
64% admitted cheating on a test in the last year.
36% said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment in the last year.
42% admitted to lying to save money.
These numbers are probably on the low side: Over 25% of those taking the test admitted to lying about at one or more of the questions on the survey (which creates a kind of conundrum—are they lying about their lying or being truthful about their lying? I once saw a T-shirt on the front which said: The statement on the back of this shirt is true. On the back it said, “The statement on the front of this shirt is false”.)
Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent said, "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."
These results have been the subject of heated discussions on talk shows and on Internet bulletin boards over the last several weeks. The general theme of these discussions has been “What does this say about America’s youth? What does this say about our future leaders?”
I suspect what this says about our future leaders is they’re going to look a lot like our current leaders. If we did the same survey on adults, and instead of the question on plagiarizing, asked adults how many had not declared 100% of their income on tax, I don’t think the results would be appreciably different. In Christian terms, we all sin—whether you’re 17 or 42 or 75. We are all tempted, and too often, give in to that temptation. We are all in need of forgiveness. We all are in need of a savior.
The far more disturbing statistic in this study is that despite the results, 93% are satisfied with their personal ethics and character. Again, I doubt that number is unique to teenagers, but reflects wider societal views. It is one thing stumble and fall. It’s another thing, having fallen, to imagine one is still walking upright.
If you’re a sports fan like I am, you’ve been bombarded with stories of athletes who’ve gotten themselves into ethical trouble: Plexico Burress of the NY Giants is the latest example—carrying around an illegal weapon that he shot himself with. OJ Simpson, former Heisman trophy-winning RB for USC and NFL Hall of Famer, was just sentenced to 9 years for armed robbery. Roger Clemens may have cheated by using illegal steroids throughout his career? Michael Vick was involved in an illegal gambling operation that involved fighting dogs. When you hear the pundits talk about these top line athletes, they’ll typically say things along the lines of “I can’t believe they are so stupid to jeopardize their careers with so much going for them.” So the analysis is it’s a failure of intelligence—they’re acting stupidly— rather than a moral failure—they’re acting sinfully.
Christianity’s wisdom is to remind us that we’re not just stupid—something that could be remedied with better schooling or more refinement —but that we’re flawed. As St. Paul says:
“The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery of sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil that I hate. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (Romans 7: 16, 23)
Advent is a time to grow closer to the Lord. The first step toward that is admitting our own sinfulness and not shying away from calling our sins for what they are. If we lie, cheat or steal, God will forgive us if we ask him to do so. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Jesus. The biggest difference is that Peter begged Jesus for forgiveness, whereas Judas was too proud to ask.