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What kind of developmental histories gave rise to rescuers’ capacity for extensive caring? Rescuers were much more likely than nonrescuers to describe close family relationships in which parents modeled and taught caring values. Said one woman, “My mother always said to remember to do some good for someone at least once a day.” By contrast, parents of nonrescuers were more likely to emphasize economic values (“Get a good job,” “Be thrifty”) than moral concerns. Nonrescuers more often described their parents as using physical punishment to discipline—typically experienced by the child as a cathartic release of aggression on the parent’s part rather than anything related to the child’s behavior. Rescuers, by contrast, remembered their parents as only occasionally punishing and more often “explaining things,” telling the child that he or she had made “mistakes” or hadn’t understood the other person’s point of view. Rescuers’ parents were also much more likely to explicitly teach a positive attitude toward different cultures and religions and the obligation to help others generously without concern for rewards or reciprocity. Said one rescuer, “My father taught me to love God and my neighbor, regardless of race or religion. At my grandfather’s house, when they read the Bible, he invited everybody in. If a Jew happened to drop in, he would ask him to take a seat. Jews and Catholics were received in our place like everybody else.” Another rescuer asserted, “When you see a need, you have to help. We are our brother’s keeper.” If we are serious about the character of our children, we will also need to take an honest look at the moral condition of our sexual culture. Most Americans would be likely to applaud the fact that people in general, including parents and kids, are much more comfortable talking about sex than they were prior to the 1960s. Couples having sexual problems in their marriages are more likely to try to do something about it. These are healthy changes. But along with this greater openness have come a sexualizing of popular culture and a sexualizing of children that is disturbing to parents and others across the ideological spectrum. As one reflection of this concern, TV talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil have both recently devoted a program to the problem of oral sex—on the rise, according to at least one national survey 19 —among thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds and sometimes even younger kids. Some boys are reportedly demanding oral sex from their girlfriends the way they used to expect a good-night kiss. Some girls say they have performed oral sex on many boys. There are also stories of oral sex parties and oral sex going on in school hallways, at dances, and at football games. In April 2000, the New York Times ran an article titled “The Face of Teenage Sex Grows Younger.” It quoted psychotherapists counseling children, usually girls, who were emotional wrecks because of early sexual activity. Dr. Allen Waltzman, a Brooklyn psychiatrist, commented, “I see girls, 7th- and 8th-graders, even 6th-graders who tell me they’re virgins… but they’ve had oral sex 50 or 60 times.” 20 On Dr. Phil’s show, a young girl looked into the camera, tears streaming down her face, and said to other kids who might be viewing: “Don’t do this… please don’t do this. You will lose all your self-respect. Things will get worse for you, much worse.” At a skating rink in a southern city, a father stopped to pick up his eleven-year-old daughter. In the center of the darkened rink were forty or fifty children, all about his daughter’s age or younger, forming a circle. As the father drew closer, he could see that in the center of the circle were several boys and girls acting out positions of simulated sex. Several boys made sandwiches of little girls. One boy stood behind a girl, his arms around her and his hands on her genital area. The surrounding circle of kids watched in fascination. The father says that when they saw him approaching, a few straggled away, but most showed no embarrassment. When he reported all this to the rink manager, the manager said that no one else had complained, that “dirty dancing” was not allowed in his rink, and that in the future he would increase the lighting. Then he added, “But it’s a different world.” 21 Kids can’t entirely be blamed for such behavior. But the rest of us can be. We have created the world they have to grow up in. The breakdown of sexual morality has spawned a plague of problems—promiscuity, sexual addictions, infidelity, unwed pregnancies, fatherless children, STDs, abortions, sexual harassment, the sexual abuse of children, children acting out sexually, an ever more eroticized media, a huge pornography industry (next to gambling, the most lucrative Internet business), and the damage done to marriages and families by many of these problems. To a large extent, we are still in cultural denial about the cost of sex without social controls. Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan priest-psychologist-author who works with the poor and lectures worldwide on moral and spiritual matters, challenges us to face the hard truth: As rescuers grew up, distinctions of class and religion were far less important to them than to nonrescuers in choosing friends. Rescuers also developed a greater “internal locus of control” than nonrescuers—a stronger feeling that they could shape events and a greater willingness to risk failure. It was no accident, this study concludes, that when the lives of outsiders were threatened, persons who had been developing an extensive orientation from childhood responded by reaching out. Saving others from the Holocaust grew out of the ways in which they ordinarily related to other people. When the war was over, they were likely to continue this pattern. In postwar life, significantly larger percentages of rescuers than nonrescuers participated in community service. Their most common activity was attending to the sick or aged. The research on rescuers has important implications for both families and schools. Families need to nurture an inclusive caring that reaches beyond the home. Schools must foster that same spirit of inclusiveness and the actual experience of caring community through day-to-day relationships. The rescuer study sheds important light on the nature and roots of character, but it’s not the whole story. As psychologists Anne Colby and William Damon point out in their book Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, not everyone in Nazi-occupied Europe who had the rescuers’ personality characteristics (empathy, a sense of internal control, feelings of responsibility for others) and family backgrounds (parents who taught tolerance and caring) took the life-endangering step to rescue Jews. 17 Most, in fact, did not. Early experience, like culture, may influence but does not determine adult moral behavior. What other factors help to explain why a particular person chooses to act compassionately and courageously without counting the cost? To try to answer that question, Colby and Damon asked a group of “expert nominators”—theologians, philosophers, and historians of varying political ideology, religious beliefs, and sociocultural backgrounds—to define criteria for a “moral exemplar” and then to suggest persons who fit those criteria. There was a surprisingly high degree of consensus on five criteria for exemplars: (1) a sustained commitment to moral ideals; (2) a consistency between one’s ideals and means of achieving them; (3) a willingness to sacrifice self-interest; (4) a capacity to inspire others; and (5) a humility about one’s own importance. Using these five criteria, Colby and Damon proceeded to identify and interview twenty-three moral exemplars. Educationally, the exemplars ranged from having completed eighth grade to having earned medical, doctorate, and law degrees. They included religious leaders of different faiths, businessmen, physicians, teachers, charity workers, an innkeeper, a journalist, lawyers, heads of nonprofit organizations, and leaders of social movements. Ten were men; thirteen were women. Their contributions spanned civil rights, the fight against poverty, medical care, education, philanthropy, the environment, peace, and religious freedom. In the course of their lives, each of these remarkable individuals, Colby and Damon found, developed a personal goal that involved a moral transformation. In most cases, mentors and colleagues played an influential role in the development of this defining goal. In all cases, the goal involved a commitment to a cause or principle that led to a life of uncompromising integrity and service. As a striking example of this goal-driven transformation, these researchers cite the Russian scientist Andrei Sakharov. Until he was thirty-six, Sakharov was a pillar of the Soviet Union’s Communist establishment. He invented the Russian H-bomb. He was considered both a brilliant scientist and a patriot. He had never rocked the boat. Then, in 1957, he became concerned about radioactive contamination following Soviet nuclear weapons tests and wrote memos urging caution. A few years later he personally contacted Nikita Khrushchev to try to persuade him to halt further testing—and was told to cease meddling in affairs of state. By 1966 he was dissenting publicly, warning against the reintroduction of Stalinism. In 1967 he pleaded the case of two Soviet dissidents sentenced harshly under Soviet law. A year later he lost his clearance for scientific work. In 1970, with two close colleagues, he founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee to advocate publicly for persecuted people throughout the Soviet Union. In 1973 he appealed to the United Nations to intervene on behalf of Soviet dissenters sent to psychiatric hospitals. In 1986, having become the target of intense attacks from the state media, he was exiled from Moscow to the city of Gorki. Here, then, is a journey of moral growth in adulthood—from a secure, establishment scientist to a principled defender of human rights willing to risk all. This journey confronted Sakharov with repeated opportunities to decide whether to move forward on the path he had chosen or to withdraw. Each time, supported and challenged by like-minded colleagues committed to human freedom, he chose to move forward. His ethical pilgrimage illustrates how the course of character development may continue over a lifetime, propelled not by determining factors from childhood, personality, or culture, but by freely chosen acts in service of a compelling ideal. The lessons for us as teachers and parents? First, to provide young people with opportunities to think about and set worthwhile goals that will develop their character and give them the sense of purpose that every young person needs. Second, to model that process ourselves, so that young people have adults in their lives who are visibly committed to high ideals and engaged in actualizing them more fully. Character affects every area of society. On a trip in November 1999, I had a conversation with a woman who was making a transition to university personnel work after more than thirty years in the business world. She had worked for five different companies. When I told her of my work in character education, she spoke of how, in her experience, character profoundly affects business: If you don’t have character in business, then you won’t have team spirit. Character affects how you treat your colleagues and how you treat your customers. When there is no character, you get corruption. People look out for themselves only. Two years later, with the country awash in corporate scandals, her words seemed prophetic. The cooked books, stock manipulations, and insider trading that constituted the corruption within Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate giants emerged as another measure of the moral ground we’ve lost. The runaway greed that gave rise to these scandals reflected changes in corporate culture, aided by government policies that removed many of the regulatory checks on the lust for money. The result has been a fast-growing gap between the rich and the rest of the country—a gap that weakens families and is altering the very character of our democratic society. This transformation is documented in detail in Kevin Phillips’s 2002 book, Wealth and Democracy. 18 Phillips does not write from the left; he is, in fact, a lifelong Republican. The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of Americans, he says, far exceeds anything that has happened in our history. It has profound political as well as economic consequences because money continues to buy political influence and therefore shapes public policy. In 1999, the average income (after taxes) of the middle 60 percent of Americans was lower than in 1977. Meanwhile, between 1982 and 1999, the four hundred richest Americans increased their average net worth from $230 million to $2.6 billion. Among the Western nations, the United States has the highest level of income inequality. In 1990, CEOs made 85 times what the average worker made. By 2000 they made 531 times the average worker’s pay. In 1981, America’s ten most highly paid CEOs received an average salary of $3.5 million; by 2000 that figure had soared to $154 million. From 1980 to 1999, the five hundred largest corporations tripled their assets and profits. During that period those same corporations eliminated approximately 5 million American jobs.
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