Is the modern high school a wretched hive of scum and villainy?

From New York:

All the data show a generation far less ethical than their parents. According to a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51 percent of people age 17 or under agree that to get ahead, a person must lie or cheat, compared with 18 ­percent of people ages 25 to 40.

Not clear to me this means what she says it means.  I think teenagers are just more cynical than adults.  They’ve seen their classmates cheat on tests, get good grades, and get away with it.  By 40, you’ve seen the consequences for people who’ve spent their lives skirting the rules and shading the truth.  Maybe I’m too sunny, but I do think that as I’ve gotten older I’ve better appreciated the returns to virtue.


4 thoughts on “Is the modern high school a wretched hive of scum and villainy?

  1. Bobito says:

    Almost like you I’m almost freshly 40. As I’ve gotten older I’ve appreciated more the negative returns to virtue, that the consequences I supposed might come with the decisions I made have come, and not always to my liking. I’ve also come to appreciate more and more that by and large those cheating and shading the truth get ahead, and that many of those who have gotten ahead are cheating and shading the truth. I work with any number of charlatans who are better paid and work less and less well than I. I can live with that as a tradeoff for being able to do things my way to my standard, as long as they are not actively working to prevent me from doing things the way I think they should. Unfortunately in big institutions they often are doing exactly that. My reaction is not to join them, but it is a natural reaction, and an understandable one.

    By the way, you are certainly right in your assessment of the quoted material. All this shows is that today’s youngsters are appalled by the self-righteous egocentric frauds that are their parents.

  2. quasihumanist says:

    I think what is happening is simply the world getting more competitive and the stakes getting higher.

    Fifty years ago, if your skills extended as far as being able to properly put bolts on a car in an assembly line, you could get a job paying reasonably well doing that. Nowadays, ten such jobs have been replaced by a robot and one person with the skills to operate robotic machinery.

    There are of course still a few well-paying jobs out there that don’t require well above average skills of some kind. However, the competition for such jobs is insane because there are few such jobs and lots of people who aren’t capable of harder jobs. Furthermore, there is no ethical, rational method for choosing among all the people competing for such a job (except lottery, but that can be rigged too). Hence the only way to get such jobs is to lie, cheat, steal, or have connections. Keep in mind that the children of the moderately privileged often don’t have the right connections, because many of the moderately privileged these days are moderately privileged because they are hugely talented at something and in circles where people get jobs because they are hugely talented at something.

    The same is true on a higher level for businesses. It used to be much harder to run a large business and diseconomies of scale used to be much bigger. Now there is room for much fewer entities in a market, and hence it is no longer enough to be merely good to survive. In order to survive, a business either needs to be extraordinary in a way few managers have the skill to manage, or it needs to lie, cheat, steal, or have connections.

    I think teenagers are simply more aware of the new reality that, if one is not well above average at some important skill, which, by definition, few people will be, and one does not have the right connections, which, again, because people have a limited number of connections, few people have, then the choices are either lying and cheating (better than everyone else), or permanently working at McDonalds (and it won’t be too many years before the automated McDonalds is upon us).

    [i]Player Piano[/i] (the dystopic Vonnegut novel) is almost here, and, not surprisingly, it isn’t pretty.

    One alternative is the Amish one, being careful about what technology is introduced into society in order to preserve social harmony. Another alternative is the Swiss one, generously subsidizing inefficient methods of production under the guise of preserving traditional crafts. The problem with both is that the Chinese government won’t go along; they’ll be happy to consign 80% of their population to starvation wages in order to economically surpass any country taking either alternative.

  3. K says:

    Maybe people get better at rationalizing as they get older? Life is full of “little white lies”: telling someone you liked their short story to spare their feelings, pretending to your partner that it’s all platonic with so-and-so even though you’re both flirting, writing the introduction to your paper or the recommendation letter a little more bombastically than is supported by the facts, etc.

    Little white lies are everywhere, but I think most people think of themselves as “basically honest” in spite of them. I think their standards might have been stricter when they were younger.

    (And maybe it’s a good thing! Maybe always being perfectly honest is not the right goal…)

  4. harrison says:

    I don’t think that cheating in high school would even imply that the generation under 25 (of which I am still technically a part) is less ethical. Obviously there are sampling concerns, especially since most of my cohort is just a year or two out of college, but many of my friends and peers seem to be genuinely concerned with how to make the world a better place — there’s something of a distaste for people who take the easy way out with a high-paying, low-positive-impact Wall Street job, and a respect for professions like teaching. This could obviously fade within a few years, but I’d consider it a much better ethical measuring stick than the poll question mentioned.

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