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The "Values" Wasteland




joun1alist whose work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Tournai, and other leading newspapers, Charles Sykes (1954- ) usually writes about issues. His books include ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher

Education (1988), The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education :1990), A Nation of Victims: The Decay ofthe American Character (1992), The End Jf Privacy (1999), and 50 Rules !(ids Won't Learn in School (2007) . A senior fellow

1t the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and host of a popular Milwaukee radio ;how, Sykes lectures widely on topics having to do with what he sees as the collapse )f standards in American culture. The following excerpt is from Sykes's 1995 book,

Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America js Childre'n Feel Good About Themselves but '::an 't Read, Write, or Add. . . . . . \ .1 . 1 - \J ., l -

l're- Reading Journal Entry o. c C v v (\. t ..Q..W"'. )tudies reveal that sexual misbehavior, drug use, shoplifting, and cheating are comnon among some young people. In your journal, explore your thinking about young Jeople's misconduct in two of these (or other) areas. Why do you think young peoJle engage in such risky behavior? t- -e_ '( \. .e._

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Eric Richardson was a seventeen-year-old member of the Spur '"Posse, a ;roup of boys accused of raping girls as young as ten years old. After their rrests, the posse members reportedly returned to school as heroes, apJlauded for their exploits by their fellow students. In talk show appearances .nd media interviews, the boys were unrepentant. "They pass out condoms, teach sex education and pregnancy this and pregnancy that," Eric said after off a Nacho Supreme and necking with his girlfriend in a booth at 1 he Taco Bell . "But they don't teach us any rules." His response was too ;lib and too convenient; !!_ wasn't our fault, he was sayin you tau ht us to this. No school, however m1sgui e , can ever be blamed for a piece of work like Eric Richardson . E_Jen so, the evidence suggests tbaf hjs etl+ical 0 gmpass is isolated aberration. ) +( 'J; f 11 n-- c\"e.. Q;IY A 1988 study of more than 2,000 Island students in grades six 2 hrough nine found that two-thirds of the boys and half of the girls thought hat "it was acceptable for a man to force sex on a woman" if they had been :ating six months or more. 2 A write-in survey of 126,000 teenagers found

that 25 to 40 percent of teens see nothing wrong with cheating on exams, stealing from empleyers, or keeping money that wasn't theirs. A seventeenyear-old high St:hool senior explained: "A lot of it is a gray area. It's everybody doing their own thing. " 3 A 1992 survey by the Josephson Institute for Ethics of nearly 7,000 high 3 school and college students, most of them from middle- and upper middleclass backgrounds, found the equivalent of a "hole in the moral ozone" among American youth. . \Y'of college students said they have in the last year. Nearly the same number (33 percent of high school st:UaenfS and ll percent of college students) said they p-;eni;.or relatives at least once.4 "' ne in ei students admitted to committing an act offraud, including borrowing money they did not intend to repay, and lying aicLur insurance forms . students said they would lie to get done so at least once. t han 60 percent3 J:ligh school )rudents said they had cheated at leaston:ceon an exam. --..... ' Forty percent of iherugnScilool students who participated in this survey admitted that they "were not completely honest" on at least one or two .. ( ]\ .J \ questions-meanin that the ave lied on a surve about !yin .5 .,..-) ' "I think it's very easy to get high sc?ool and ese days 4 y<V'} .i and hardly ever hear, 'That's 7rong,"' commented PatriCk McCarthy of . ' Pasadena's Jefferson CenterJdf Character Education. Michael Josephson, the Q.)!>' president of the Joseph;s>rllnstitute of Ethics, describes a large and population as the "I)kserve-Its," or IDis. "Their c; preoccupied with vsona-1 needs, wants, don't(}.p. wants an . ts." In purs . cess .r...-c6illfort, or self-gratification, the IDis ar blithe ']ling t jettiso raaitional ethical restraints, and as a result "IDis are more likely to li , eat and engage in irresponsible behavior when . lit suits their purposes. IDis act as if they need whatever they want and deserve whatever they need .... " 6 American cannot, of 1 course, be at the a n_ et:Jili;al




f dtdo::V"_,.noog young Ameri'""-"'' need



look fi"t to theie

lane Gross, "Where 'Boys will be Boys,' And Adults Are Bewildered," New York Times, 29 1arch 1993. [. Kikuchi , "Rhode Island Develops Successful Intervention Program for Adolescents," lational Coalition Against Sexual Assault Newsletter, Fall 1988 .

Week end, 21- 22 August 1992. Gary Abrams, "Youth Gets Bad Marks in Morality," Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1992.

Josephson, "Young An1erica Is Looking Out for No. 1," Los Angeles Times, 16 1990.




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The "Values" Wasteland




the media, an<:Leven the

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shift from a culture of self-control to one -of se!Fgratification, self-actuahzation, and self-realization, and its changing norms regarding personal responsibility and character, was not restricted to the arena of public education. young people may, at least in Eyen so, the ethical .. At one time, American students used to.. role moods like Benjamin Franklin, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Madame Curie, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington-whose stories were used to provide object lessons in inventiveness, character 1 compassion, curiosity, and truthfulness. Aristotle, .ethi9,st __ .that. do=: not become virtuous stmply b re - . . . pnnciple." "We become just by t r ce-:ofjust actions;" Aristotle observed, "self-controlled by exercising process was most effectively begun by placing examples of such virtues of young people for them to emulate. But while Asian children contiriue to read about stories . of perseverance, hard work, loyalty, duty, prudence, hewism, and honesty, [educational researcher] Harold Stevenson finds that "Fbr., the most par_!,. such cultural the United Statest qday." 7 In its provide children a jumbled smorgasbord of moral \ place, wz>

The bad thing.about cheating is - - - , - - - - The good thmg' aboutcheating is _ _ _ _ __ If there were no such things as grades, would your attitude toward cheating change? Is school the only place cheating takes place? Where else does cheating take place? Is it ever OK to cheat? When? It is not clear whether there are ever any right and wrong answers to these questions. The class takes a similar approach to lying. Students are asked, "Lying, What's Your View?" .. . Children in the class are ... presented with a . series of ethical problems. They are not asked to define right and wrong or moral or immoral. Instead, they are asked to say which actions are "acceptable ... and . . . which are . . . unacceptable. Do any of the situations involve lying?"


course The is officially about "citizenship," but the subject Specially prepared for students in the fourth to sixth grades, the signed to help students clarifY and discover their own values on lying and cheating. As a group or by secret ballot, the fourth, fift graders are asked: "How many of you ...
Think children should have to work for their allowances? Think most rules are dumb? Think that there are times when cheating is ok? Wish you didn't have grades in school? Think prizes should be awarded for everything?"

How IYo You Feel About Cheating?


's values. 8 lass is deissues like 0 and sixth o

A factory worker oversleeps and is late for work. He tells his supervisor that he was involved in a minor traffic accident. Janine just can't face a big history exam for which she hasn't studied. She convinces her mother that she has a terrible sore throat and must stay home. Bill runs into a friend he hasn't seen in months. The friend asks how he is. Bill smiles and answers "great!" even though his dog just died, l he's flunking English, and he just broke up with his girlfriend ....
a feature of the approach known as 8 clarification," in which, as [journalist J William Kirk Kilpatrick writes, classroom are turned into "'bull sessions' where gpinions go back and forth but W\'\J'r are never reached." .. . Many of seem to be based on 15 si :the rather fantastic notion that since none in the world throu_ghout the entire sweep ofl1uii1-iin history has been able to work out 1 '5 r ' ' ' ' . it lih_G\.of l out guesaons ot right and wrong on their own.

--!VI _

The Values Clarifiers


The section on cheating asks students: "What are your attiru cheating?" They are asked to complete the following statements: Tests are _______ Grades are _______
Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler, The Learning Gap (New York: Summit Books, 1992), pp. 85-86. 8 "Citizenship: 4th-6th Grade," xeroxed worksheets, undated. Several copies were provided to me by parents whose children had been given the assignment during class.



agenda was quite specific.


\ other nonjudgmental ap- 9 5 to be value-free, b.l!Lthei.r- - ;-.. .... \ e "'-1

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The "Values" Wast:eland



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also dangerous to the et:htcal health ..of..children. By passing ort "\IJ-"''::Dr-I set of moral values, they argued, parents . .hampenng the ability :hildren to come up with their own values. ... no_Lprepared to make their own responsible chok_ es," In _ any case, mo_ ralizing was no JoJ;J.ger practical. . Children were bombarded With so many different sets of values and parents were only ;orne of the many voices they heard. In the .e nd, they argue; every child had.sLto make his own ch ces. se;;-s-Jr - aki-l'l.g--e-noiCeS"Ts' the es- c-ON. ;ence of free will. ut where v . e arted from oldermora Jhiloso hies was in it c nte . -.,.;,. not need to be grounded 11 value systems or prOVI e with rnOfal raac maps before they are a* ed Values dmfiers also did not- care what val :hild cfiose to tO'ITOw..Specihcally, values clarification did not concern itself wtth inculcating values such as self-control, honesty, responsibility, loyalty, xudence, duty, or justice. In its purest form, values clarification did not argue that these virtues were superior or preferable to their opposites md had little to say about concepts of right and wrong. The goal of values was not to create a virtuous young_person, or young adult with :haracter or probity; was erop.Qw.erin.g-;r-O.ungsters to make thcir..own ...-ecisions, whatever those decisions werJ- .. . The assumption behind such programs was that children had the capac- 10 ty to develop character on their own; that students as young as third grade 1ad the knowledge, insight, and cognitive abilities to wrestle through dif5cult and thorny :ompass, either from parents or teachers ... . t-O. .,....rtli,..,..,tv.... o, . rt of the val s clarification program was the effort to '?I 1ave students develop an ividual identi One exercise was "Are You Who . ." followed by a long list of options, including: "is likely to 0 1 narry someone of another religion?"; "is likely to grow a beard?"; "would \ 3 :onsider joining the John Birch Society?"; "is apt to go out of your way to 1ave a black (white) neighbor?"; ""';ill subscribe to Playboy magazine?"; will :bange your religion?"; "will be likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize?"; "is apt :o experiment with pot?"; "would get therapy on your own initiative?"; "will nake a faithless husband? wife?" The auiliors explain that such questions will cause students "to consider 12 11ore thoughtfully what iliey value, what iliey want out of life and what type Jf persons they want to become. " 11 But the questions send an oilier message 1s well by treating the various ;gual weight, like choKes on a personality buffet line: Will you
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Prize or experiment .with pot? Subscribe to Playboy or change your religion? . . :.:..... _ There is no sug iliat rowing a beard or cheatin Our wife might . . -- ..... be eciswns that railier different moral weights. . , ,M-. v r1,<=-<-t rt > Ultimately, the values clarification approac es mora c oice to11 a 13 matter of personal taste with no more b r: objective reality than a prefer- ence for a red car rather than e one. The'IT is no nght or wrong answer and gard your own choice eii:her as better or more valid than any other. But is iliis really a process of working out mar 14 of rationalization? Humans ration iZe because it is convenient and it '\\ suits our interests. If we choose, we can shape morality to meet our in dina .Y tions and impulses, rather than try to shape our inclinations to accord with/ vJ D moral law. Moral reasoning, in contrast, involves asking whether an act is ood, whether it is made With nght mtent, and exammmg the act's v To such ju?gments requires otwfi'a'ftfie l:;b;t'j / \..,.. ____ --- .. L. simply how we feel about the act. to take the fo./'1' . make it ilie sole test of morality is to ration'!.l- i c; ize agg_ _ call it m-oral reasorung. Checking one's inclinations is not ilie same . as one's conscience, precisely because the conscience needs !9 be '{) educated. R-)SC ne wou ld never get th at i 'dea firom watc h'mg a val ues cIan'fiicauon . ". II\ e..dc\catfe.. sim- tJ.J - 15 ulation" of a moral choice. In one popular exercise, students have to imagine ---rk. o-.Q that their class has been trapped in a cave-in. In the exercise, students are to imagine that they have to form a single line to work their way out -jthe cave. At any moment, another rock slide may close the way out. Those at the head of the line are therefore the most likely to survive. In the class I :P , . exercise, each member of the class must give ilie reason he or she should be Ia w S at the head of the line. The teacher tells them: "Your reasons can be of two (.,--'lt'hout' kinds. You can tell us what you want to live for or what you have yet to get o-.. . . out oflife that is important to you. Or you can talk about what you have to G contribute to others in the world that would justifY your being near the front v c, J of the line." Mter hearing all of the fleas, tl1e class then decides the order in ccL which they will file out of the cave. 1 -+u Like other values clarification chestnuts, youngsters are asked to make 16 . life-and-death decisions. But what are the practical implications? Do students emerge from the class more empathetic? More willing to sacrifice for others? Are they likely to treat their peers wiili more respect? Show more self-restraint in the presence of their parents? Or are they likelY, to have a keener sense of ilieir own egos? . . . . IN>__,.__, C..0...\1\ ll NMl .


0 Ibid .,
1Ibid .,

p. 16. p. 366 .

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Ibid., p . 288 .





The "Values" Wasteland



Other exercises ask srudents to be allowed to stay in 17 a fallout shelter (and who should be a nuclear attack; to decide whether it is morally permissible for a poor man to steal a drug that his desperately ill wife needs; to work through 'tli.e dilemma of trapped settlers who must decide whether to turn to cannibalism or starve to death; to put themselves in the place of a mother who must choose which of her t:Wo children she will save; and consider the ethical dilemma of a doctor who must decide to operate on an injured child despite the religious objections -of the parents. "Like a roller-coaster ride," William Kilpatrick writes, "the dilemma approach can leave its passengers a bit breathless. That is one of Its attia<;tions. But like a roller-coaster ride, it may also thbn a bi(disotiented--'---()r more than a bit." 13 _ -_. _ __ . b _ ..are hardl a: ide \) a moral code; niore than__solviog a CQ!!lplex and per- .haps Talce the case of the man whose wife is dying of an incurable illness andwno needs a rare and expensive drug. Kilpatrick won- < ders whether youngsters who spend a diverting and lively class period debat- oi ing whether stealing is right or wrong in this case would be less lilcely to steal themselves? Or lie? Or cheat? Or will they come to the conclusion that moral questions are inevitably so complicated, so fraught with doubt, that no one answer is necessarily ever any better than any other and that all moral questions come down in the end simply to a matter of opinion? Or will they get the idea that it is less important whether one steals or not than that one has developed a system of "valuing" with which one is comfortable? One of the striking things about spending time with high school students I 8 is the near universality of this notion that values are s<;>mething they work out Ontfieir own. One frequent on ethical issues iecounts his expenence students in which he presents them with a typical values clarification dilemma. They inust imagine that they are on a lifeboat with another person and their family dog; the students can save only one, so they must choose either the human being, who is a complete stranger, or the beloved and cherished family dog. Typically, some of the students choose to save the dog and allow the man to die; most students choose to save human being. But then the speaker asks them what they thought of their classmates who had opted for the dog over the man . Almost never, says the speaker, do students say that those choices were "wrong" or morally objectionable .14 Even for those who made tl1e correct moral choice, it was merely a matter of personal opinion, and they refuse to be judgmental toward those who put the dog's life al1ead of the human being's. The concept that there might universal and objective moral principles at stake is completely alien to these youngsters .

Questions for Close Reading

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1. What thesis? Locate the sentence(s) in which Sykes states his main idea. If he doesn't state it directly, express it in your own words. 2. What, according to Sykes, is the difference between contemporary American education and American education in the past? 3. What group of people does Sykes blame for the erosion of morality in American education? What justification do these people provide for their approach? 4. Reread paragraphs 15 and 18 . In each, Sykes describes a classroom exercise in "values clarification." What is the educational intent of the two exercises? How are they similar? How do they differ? What is Sykes's opinion of the two exercises? 5. Refer to your dictionary as needed to define the following words used in the selection: unrepentant (paragraph l) , self-actualization (4), precept (5), emulate (5), perseverance (5) , smorgasbord (5), bete noir (9), moralizing (9), cognitive (10), rationalization (14), and fraught (17) .

,, 'Questions About the Writer's Craft The pattern. In the first three paragraphs of his essay, Sykes provides numerous examples to illustrate what he considers the moral looseness of young people. . Why do you think he starts with the example of the seventeen-year-old rapist? In what ways is this example different from the examples he provides in paragraphs 2. and 3? Why do you suppose Sykes entitles his essay "The 'Values' Wasteland"? Consider what each word means. Why do you think he puts quotation marks around the - word "Values"? 3. In paragraphs 2 and 3, Sykes ri1akes heavy use of statistics. Why do you suppose he cites statistics only in the beginning of the essay? 4. Other patterns. How would you characterize Sykes's tone? How does this tone reinforce his argument? Writing Assignments Using Exemplification as a Pattern of Development
I. Sykes contends that modern education fai ls to teach morality. Do you agree? Write an essay illustrating the point that contemporary schooling blunts or en hances young people's moral sense. In either case, offer convincing examples from your own and other people's schooling to support your point of view. Consider opening your essay, as Sykes does, with a highly dramatic example. 2. Sykes believes that the moral fiber of young people has deteriorated . Interview classmates, friends, and family members of varying ages to see if they think that young people today' are less moral than they were in earlier times. Ask each person to supply at least one example to illustrate his or her opinion. Review the examples, and decide whether you agree with or reject Sykes's posi tion. Then write an essay in which you support your opinion, using the most compelling exampl es from yo ur interviews as well as your own experiences and observations.


Is f-o S"t)


Kirk Kilpatdck, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong (New York: Simo n & Schuster,

1992 ), P- 84.

Dennis Prager, conversation wid1 aud10r.