In Atlanta, the government-operated school system was caught earlier this year in long-term cheating on standardized tests. Although the Washington Post is a big defender of government schools, even the Post called the details “shocking.”
Teachers, principals and administrators were all caught up in cheating by a system that was said to use fear and intimidation to get teachers to go along with the scheme. (At the same link, you can find links to PDFs of the full state report, which details just how corrupt the system has been.)
The people who are most cheated by this are the students and parents. Students have resources that are supposed to be used to educate them being used instead to finance a world-class cheating operation. Parents who send their kids to schools and see positive test scores believe their kids are getting the education they need, so they have been cheated and lied to. The kids are too young to understand how they’re being cheated, but the parents would be justified in feeling intense rage.
The parents, it turns out, aren’t angry. In fact, at a public meeting Tuesday night in southwest Atlanta, they lined up to sing the praises of their schools and defend the teachers who had been cheating their kids. Seriously. I’m not making this up.
How can these parents expect their kids to learn that cheating is wrong if they won’t even support holding the teachers accountable? There’s no way the kids can have anything other than warped values if their parents don’t care about it.
The mutual co-operation that we count on in our society is based on some common shared values. Frequently, when people talk about values, they’re talking about the values or moral standards of their own religion, but that’s not what I mean in this case. I’m talking about the values that allow people to live around each other and trade with each other.
When it comes to trusting you enough to live around you and trade with you, I don’t have to care whether you share my Christian faith. You can be an atheist or a Jew or Muslim or one of a dozen other religious beliefs, but as long as I know I can trust your basic honesty and integrity, we can do business with each other. We can potentially live in peace.
People who grow up learning that it’s OK to cheat as long as you have redeeming qualities aren’t people I want to live next to. They’re not people I want to employ. They’re not people I want to do business with. They’re not people I can trust.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that these are the first people to teach their children that cheating is OK, but I’m disturbed because it seems as though it’s becoming more common for people to excuse cheating and dishonesty — and be open about it.
Cheating and dishonesty have always been with us, but it seems as though there used to be more of a sense of shame about it. Even when people where cheaters — and knew they were going to cheat — they had a realization that what they were doing was wrong on some basic level. It seems as though we have a larger and larger proportion of the population who believe that what’s morally acceptable is determined only by what you can get away with. These parents are just a symptom of a much larger problem.
I don’t know the solution, because I can’t force people to adopt values that I believe are important — and I wouldn’t force them if I could. It’s true that the decline of religious morality might play a role, but it seems as though non-religious people used to share the same sense of shame about dishonesty, so this isn’t really about religion. (Also notice that some ministers were part of the protest in Atlanta to support the teachers. That disgusts me.)
We don’t have to share religious beliefs to live together. We don’t even all have to share beliefs on every point of morality and ethics. But there’s a shared core set of values that are required for human beings to live around each other peacefully. What we saw from those parents in Atlanta Tuesday night is just the opposite of what we need to maintain a relatively peaceful society.
It’s for this and many other reasons that I tremble when I think about what future generations of people in this country are going to face if they don’t find ways to build private cities and enclaves to protect themselves from the grandchildren of people such as those parents in Atlanta.