Current events indicate eroding sense of honor


In his business ethics class, the Rev. Timothy Brown recently posed a hypothetical case to his graduate students: A man's wife is dying. He can't afford a drug that may help her. Should he steal it?

The consensus: "It's wrong, maybe."

"I just flipped out," says Father Brown, co-director of the Center for Values and Service at Loyola College in Baltimore. "I asked when they last said to someone, 'That's wrong.' Of 41 students, not one person could come up with an example. . . . It's foreign territory now when you talk about character or virtue."

But in the wake of the largest cheating scandal in the 149-year history of the U.S. Naval Academy, questions of honor have moved out of cloistered classrooms and into the murky real world.

This morning the controversy takes center stage on Capitol Hill as a congressional hearing begins to review how 133 Midshipmen could be implicated in a scandal involving an electrical engineering exam.

For some people, the erosion of ethics at the school is an alarming symbol of the American moral code run amok. Yet others dismiss it as simply another example of a lofty institution falling prey to greed, corruption and deceit.

In recent studies, Americans have resoundingly demonstrated less faith in institutions and in each other.

* Trust in the educational system, Congress and the executive branch of the federal government were at an all-time low in last year's General Social Survey, an annual poll by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. Confidence in the clergy plummeted 14 percent in two years.

* Sixty percent of the survey's respondents said "people can't be trusted today."

* And nine out of 10 admitted to lying regularly in the 1991 book, "The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe About Everything That Really Matters."

While discussions of honor, ethics and virtue can wind up sounding like amateur divinity school debates, part of the problem, say educators and researchers, is that such dialogue has become passe.

"You don't even hear the word honor very often," says Father Brown. "It's a term that's lost its original meaning. It was meant to be the notion of virtue. Honor now means merit, like belonging to an Honor Society.

It's a term, though, upon which the Naval Academy was founded. But a "blase" attitude toward the code to not lie, cheat or steal contributed to corruption, according to a December report by the Honor Concept Review Committee, the academy's civilian oversight board.

A Baltimore-area Midshipman, who requested anonymity, was offered -- and refused -- a copy of the stolen EE311 exam. He said that during plebe summer "they really beat [the honor code] into you."

But after that, "There is a perception there that [if] you can get away with what you can get away with, more power to you," he said.

Spurred by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the school and other service academies instituted an honors course after the Iran-contra affair, in part because the key figures involved -- former National Security Council aide (and current U.S. Senate candidate) Oliver L. North and former national security advisers John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane -- all graduated from the Naval Academy.

L The Midshipmen's nickname for the course: "Ollie North 101."

Ironically, the current seniors, members of the Class of 1994, were the first "plebes" or freshmen to take the course. They also are the class implicated in the current scandal.

"Maybe that means we're not doing very well at it," says Charles L. Cochran, professor of political science at the academy, who taught the course last fall.

Even at St. John's College in Annapolis, where students spend four years reading great books and debating philosophical issues, personal honor isn't easily won. "Do students today seem morally worse than those before them?" asks Eva Brann, dean of the school. "No. But they have a harder time. The stakes are higher, and the temptations greater. Parents and teachers today are afraid to preach honesty. There's a feeling against having straightforward moral opinions."

That attitude filters down from ivory towers to ordinary streets.

"Am I a man of honor?" asks Thomas Lynn, 40, a customer service supervisor who lives in North Baltimore. "I'm honorable with a small h. A capital H is a throwback to the old days, to George Washington and the you-cannot-tell-a-lie ethic. . . . These days, people prorate their honor and prioritize what things should be held to that code.

"Have I cheated? The first time was in fourth-grade poetry class, but I felt justified because I didn't cheat to do well. I cheated to pass. Have I swiped some stuff? Something my brother has? Sure. But have I shoplifted? No. And anybody who has lived through high school has lied. 'No, Dad, I didn't have anything to drink last night.' "

While he has some sympathy for the Midshipmen, he also feels relief that his integrity hasn't been tested in such a demanding way.

"The only thing worse than being an average Joe who's not recognized for living an honorable life is being someone who holds himself up to an exacting code of honor and falls short," says Mr. Lynn.

But for those who have lived up to that code, the Midshipmen's actions dishonor not only themselves but the academy and the country.

"I spent twentysome months in the South Pacific fighting for the ideals of this country," says Nicholas Bassetti, 71, a World War II veteran who lives in Parkville. "We were proud of what we did. Then to see those ideals eroded the way they've been today. It leaves me sad."

In his mind, dubious role models are partly to blame.

"Look at Tonya Harding," he says of the figure skater who admitted to learning of the plot to attack rival Nancy Kerrigan after it occurred and failing to notify authorities.

"She knew, but she didn't tell. Where's her honor at? She doesn't have any. She shouldn't be allowed in the Olympics," he says.

But his fellow World War II veteran Mark Huss says society is no worse than before.

"There's a general tendency in looking back to always think it was better then than it is now," say Mr. Huss, 77, of Dundalk, who also served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. "But the evils of the world are long with us. . . . The number of thieves, liars and bad characters hasn't increased. We're just much more conscious of these things because there's more publicity. You're bombarded by radio, TV news and talk shows. It makes the information highway a little overwhelming."

But at least one member of the younger generation is less pessimistic.

Robert Kelly, 21, a senior at Loyola College, was instrumental in getting an honor code built into the school's policies, a feat that took several years to accomplish.

Along with a philosophy of academic honesty, the eight-page code allows students to sign a pledge on exams and take them unproctored. In the year and a half it's been in place, there have been roughly five violations per semester, he says.

"A lot of people said it would never work," says Mr. Kelly. "It even had resistance among faculty, who felt it was their job to uphold honor in the classroom. But our academic integrity is something we have to take pride in, not them."

In his own life, he's had plenty of incidents where honor came into play. Several years ago, he worked at a store and mistakenly gave a customer a $20 instead of a $1 in change. The woman came back and returned the money. "I was grateful," he recalls. "But then she said if I'd have been older, she wouldn't have done it. She reinforced the idea that nothing's absolute when it comes to honor anymore. And that's the whole problem."

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