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Does Character Count?

Student scandals raise new doubt about ethical behavior

A series of newly minted student scandals has created a headwind of doubt about ethics through which educators, psychologists and parents must push to find answers to the most troubling of questions: Does character count?

Most people, no doubt, believe it does. But ultimately, do achievement and attainment obscure character and contribution? Given recent revelations, it’s hard not to wonder.

Aug. 30 – USA Today reports on an investigation by officials at Harvard University into allegations that as many as 125 undergraduates may have “inappropriately collaborated” on a take-home exam for an Introduction to Congress class, calling it the largest cheating scandal in recent memory at the elite Ivy League school.

Sept. 6 – Boston Globe reporter Peter Schworm details the results of a Boston University task force report on the underpinnings of a substance abuse and sex scandal (including two alleged sexual assaults and a naked, alcohol-fueled puck-shooting party in the team’s ice arena) devouring the school’s legendary hockey program. Among the findings, the panel cited a “culture of sexual entitlement” stemming from the player’s elevated status on campus.

Sept. 25 – An article in the New York Times described the “how and why” of academic cheating that rocked Stuyvesant High School three months earlier in which 71 juniors were found texting answers during administration of the state’s Regents exams. In the furor that followed, students admitted to different forms of academic dishonesty justified in the name of academic success and, ultimately, enhanced higher education opportunities.

Cheating, lying, drinking and sex—old problems appearing in a new light, or new problems requiring a closer examination of how we’re raising our kids? My guess is probably a little of both.

As for the pedigree of such behavior, many are quick to point out that such problems have been around for, well, longer than anyone can remember. For example, Rebecca Harrington, herself a Harvard grad, offers commentary in Song of the Cheaters, an article she published in the Times: “Cheating along the Charles … is nothing new. Periodic scandals have exposed dishonesty … and it appears that, after decades of debate, Harvard students are still unsure of what, exactly, ‘cheating’ means.”

A review of interviews about some of the latest ethical debacles seems to suggest pretty much the same thing—time-honored “traditions” gone unnoticed or perhaps left unchecked by those responsible for supervising the students.

So how to explain such boorish behavior and the propensity of supposedly bright, high-achieving young people to disregard the very values they otherwise espouse?

One might conclude there is a clash between existing and emerging levels of moral development, as characterized by Lawrence Kohlberg, when the morality of actions judged by society's views and expectations (the norm for adolescents and adults) runs into a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society, and that their own perspectives may take precedence. In other words, it’s okay to disobey rules inconsistent with our own principles or ambitions.

Perhaps therein lies the problem.

But as Paul Tough points out in his book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), it’s not so much SAT or other test scores that determine success, it’s character evidenced by such things as perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control.

A good lesson for our kids. A good lesson for ourselves.

Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor.

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