First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Civilization, Part II -- Responsibility
By now we've all heard the story of the teacher who flunked the students who plagiarized from the internet. She had warned them and their parents in advance of what plagiarism was and what the consequences of plagiarism would be.
Nevertheless, a significant number of her students lifted long passages from the internet and inserted them into their term papers without citing the source or indicating in any way that it was not their own words.
So the teacher flunked them.
The truly outrageous part of the story is the reaction of the parents. Were they furious with their children for violating the fundamental rules of honesty and scholarship? Were they ashamed that their children had been caught doing something so stupid?
No. They were angry at the teacher -- and lobbied hard with the school board to rescind the teacher's actions.
Did the school board uphold the teacher -- and, along with it, the fundamental principles on which an educational system (let alone a civilized society) depends?
No. They complied with the parents' wishes and overrode the teacher's action.
In school the next day the students gloated openly. In class after class, they taunted teachers with the fact that they no longer had even to pretend to be honest and do their own work.
The teacher resigned. Other teachers protested. And, nationwide, there was outrage about "what our educational system was coming to."
But since I live in Guilford County, I was not at all surprised at idiocy from school boards.
What shocked me was the parents. Clearly they had decided that civilizing their children was not their job. On the contrary, it was their job to uphold their children in being dishonest, disobedient to rules, and disrespectful of authority.
Didn't anyone notice the barbarians at the gates? Of course not. Because there were no barbarians at the gates.
The barbarians were inside the gates all along. The barbarians were the parents, raising their children to be barbarians just like them.
Would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who cheated his way through medical school?
Would you want to invest your money in a company headed by people who thought cheating was perfectly acceptable, even after they were caught?
Would you want to buy milk from a dairy whose policy was to put expiration dates on the cartons that bore no relation to when the milk had actually been processed?
Civilization is built on trust -- that people will do what they say they'll do (that's how you get a credit card), or that people have done what they said they did (you count on it when you pick up your car from the mechanic or your clothes from the cleaners), or that people are who they say they are (every time you leave your kids in day care or with a babysitter).
Why did we think we could trust these people? Why are we so outraged when top corporate executives and the accounting firms that audit them are found to have been either careless or downright dishonest?
We expect adults in our society to be trustworthy -- to stand by their word and their work. If someone proclaims himself to be, for instance, a doctor, we expect that he has actually gone to medical school and know what he's doing. We expect that the medical school he went to and the medical board that examined him did their job honestly and refused to allow incompetents to set up a medical practice.
What if that doctor and all who examined him had been raised by parents like those who insisted on defending their plagiarizing children? Would you let that doctor touch you, or anyone you cared about?
In fact, responsibility is more than just doing your own job well. It's also looking out for everybody else, too.
What if you leave the room where your ten-year-old was watching television and the two-year-old was playing quietly? In five minutes you come back to find the two-year-old choking on something while the ten-year-old sits there watching the screen. You save the baby's life with a teensy little Heimlich maneuver, and then turn to the ten-year-old. "Didn't you notice your sister was choking?"
"You didn't tell me I was in charge of her," the ten-year-old answers.
"I didn't have to. She was choking. At least you could have called out to me."
The ten-year-old shrugs. "It wasn't my job."
Civilization depends on people assuming a reasonable level of responsibility for everything that goes on around them.
Noticing someone's car lights were left on and trying to turn them off or notify the driver. Reporting child abuse to the police. Refusing to let a drunk get behind the wheel of a car. Stopping to move a dangerous obstacle from a public road. Waiting in line for your proper turn.
Civilized people take these responsibilities for granted. Of course we behave this way. That's what keeps the world working smoothly. We all cooperate in keeping our shared lives liveable.
But it isn't natural. Children aren't born feeling responsible for the smooth operation of the whole of society. Responsibility has to be taught.
There are two parts to the teaching. The first is example. Children will never learn responsibility by being told a bunch of rules, because responsibility is an attitude, an approach to life. They learn what responsibility is by seeing it as they are growing up.
Do your children see you toss litter onto the ground? Or do they see you pick up somebody else's litter and put it in the trashcan?
Do your children see you park diagonally across two parking places, saying, "I don't want anybody scratching our nice new car"? Or do they see you jockey the car a couple of times to make sure the other guy has room to get in and out?
Do your children see you lying to the cop who just pulled you over for speeding? Or do they hear you honestly admit to what you did wrong, and treat the policeman politely?
Of course, some people are fanatics about certain things. For instance, I have become pathological about grocery carts. I see them left in the most outlandish places -- sometimes many blocks from the grocery store.
I know that some people have good reasons for abandoning their grocery carts. For instance, I've seen mothers with toddlers in tow, push their grocery carts to some point near enough to their home that they can carry the bags the rest of the way. Of course they don't walk all the way back to the store with all those kids, just to return the cart.
I understand that. So, when I'm out running or walking, and I pass one of those abandoned carts, I push it on back to the store -- sometimes as much as half a mile. (It's good exercise to run behind a grocery cart.)
And when I park my car, I scan the lot for grocery carts that have been left blocking traffic or parking places, and take a few extra minutes to gather up three or four abandoned carts.
Does this really matter? Does it really help? Not much. But it costs me little and makes a few more grocery carts -- and parking places -- usable. Plus, my children see me doing it, and beside thinking their father is weird (which is, of course, true), they also get the idea that grownups look for things that are wrong and try to make them right.
It's important, though, to distinguish between taking responsibility and assuming authority. I don't yell at people who abandon their grocery carts. I don't even speak to them, except on rare occasions when I say, "Would you like me to take this back for you?" I don't even imply criticism. Because I have no authority over grocery carts. I just take a little responsibility for them.
But parents do have authority over their children, and so they must hold their children responsible for what the children do.
This begins at a very early age, when we teach children to be responsible for when and where they deposit the substances produced by their bodies. If we're doing a good job as parents, however, fulfilling our responsibility to the community at large, we hold our children responsible for a lot more than using the restroom.
"That woman nearly tripped and fell because you walked right in front of her," you say to your child. "It would have been your fault. She could have been hurt, and you too. You need to watch where you're going."
"Look at this candy wrapper here on the carpet. The garbage can is five steps away, but you chose to drop it here instead. Who did you think was going to pick it up and throw it away? It's your candy, so it's your job to throw away your own wrapper."
This can begin very, very young -- when children are still listening, when they still care what their parents think. So that by the time they're in high school, you don't have to say, "This term paper is supposed to be your own work, but you didn't write it. You knew that was wrong, and you chose to do it, and now you're going to be attending summer school to make up for a class you deserved to flunk." The reason you don't have to say it is that you taught them so well they would never dream of trying to evade responsibility for their own actions.
The sad thing is that fewer and fewer parents are teaching responsibility to their children, and fewer and fewer public figures are setting any kind of example. When Bill Clinton was not held responsible for either his perjury or his outrageous sexual mistreatment of women, while Hillary Clinton was not held responsible for her criminal acceptance of gifts masquerading as cattle futures earnings, the message was clear.
Dorks like Clarence Thomas can be treated like scum because of allegations that were obviously false, and dweebs like Linda Tripp can be cruelly abused for nothing more than telling inconvenient truths.
Why were Bill and Hillary guilty but exempt, while Clarence and Linda were innocent but punished?
Because if you're cool enough and have the right friends, you don't have to pay.
Under Bill Clinton, America dropped bombs all over Serbia, killing hundreds or perhaps thousands of civilians and accomplishing almost nothing, but nobody held him -- or us -- responsible, because hey, we're the World's Only Superpower, so who's going to stop us? But Israel dropped a bomb that blew up a murdering terrorist, and because that terrorist chose to hide out in an apartment building full of families, some innocent people died -- and Ariel Sharon is being attacked like a war criminal.
Sharon has killed far fewer civilians in his desperate effort to defend Israel from murderers than Clinton did in his desperate effort to distract attention from the impeachment vote and hearings on his high crimes and misdemeanors.
But under the current rules in America, if the cool people like you, you can do no wrong and you are held responsible for nothing, while if the cool people despise you, then even when you do right, you are ripped to shreds for it.
That's not civilization. That's junior high.
Most parents still teach some responsibility to their children, and some parents still do a splendid job of turning out kids who are civilized, responsible adults.
But more and more parents are teaching their kids, either deliberately or accidentally, to be cheaters and rule-breakers, litterers and vandals and thieves, mockers of the poor saps who actually follow the rules.
At what point does a civilization cross over the line and become a horde of barbarians?
Are we already too far down the slope to climb back up?
One thing is certain. A nation never has a better character than the vast majority of its citizens.
If we're a nation of barbarians, then our national and foreign policies will, sooner or later, be barbaric.
But if we're a nation of civilized people, then our national and foreign policies will be civilized. We will take responsibility for cleaning up those messes that we can clean up. We'll do our best to protect those who can't protect themselves, and block those who commit crimes against others.
We'll hold all nations to the same standards, and ourselves as well. When we realize we've done wrong (or our leaders have done wrong in our names), we'll admit it and make amends.
But it's ludicrous to think a nation can do that, if we can't teach our kids to be like that -- and don't even try to live like that ourselves.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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