Getting Over Ourselves

  In a recent episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under, the youngest daughter, Claire, is waiting to take the college admissions test, the SAT. When she hears her best friend's name called, she turns around to look for her friend and is surprised to see someone else answering, "Here." She realizes that her friend has paid another student to take the test for her. When confronted by Claire, her friend replies, "Get over yourself," and tells her that this is the way the game is played. The audience is meant to sympathize with Claire, but, given our culture's ideas about human nature, I wonder if they do. Evidence of widespread cheating is easy to find. Wall Street is depressed because of fears that Enron and Arthur Andersen are only tips of the iceberg. And there are admissions by several best-selling, well- respected authors that they plagiarized other peoples' work. The author of an award-winning book about gun ownership in pre-Civil War America has been accused of falsifying the data upon which the book's argument is based. Our culture has no trouble recognizing cheating, but it does have trouble answering the question, "Why do people cheat?" National Public Radio recently put this question to Vivian Paley, a retired kindergarten teacher in Chicago. Paley is no ordinary kindergarten teacher. She's the winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant and the author of books about the moral and social development of children. For Paley, competition is the serpent in our children's garden. The problem, she says, lies in the way we define success as being the best. She believes that children enter education "with the highest morality of all: give everyone the same thing." Cheating enters the picture when this morality is replaced a by new, more competitive set of demands: "Be smart," "Be fast," "Know everything," or at least "Know more than someone else does." That's when our more cooperative and empathetic concerns are set aside in favor of the more competitive demands in life. Given this explanation, it's easy to see why Claire's friend had someone take the SAT for her. But what Paley's explanation can't tell us is why Claire should be outraged. Her friend was simply acting in accordance with the demands placed on her by society. Paley's worldview is widely shared by modern liberals. It excuses the individual of all moral responsibility. This idea comes straight out of writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau wrote that human instincts are good, but that it is the restraints imposed by institutions of culture that corrupt us. This is, of course, an explicit rejection of the biblical idea of Original Sin and individual moral responsibility. People like Paley rightfully insist on the importance of teaching kids to respect rules. But their efforts are inevitably undermined, as we see all around us, because they are mistaken about why it is that people break the rules, and so they cannot apply the right restraints. Dealing with cheating requires acknowledging that the problem of cheating, like all evil things we do, lies in ourselves -- our wrong moral choices. That's an idea that our culture learned from Christianity. In other words, the answer to dishonesty lies in getting over ourselves, but not in the way Claire's friend meant. For further reading and information: Listen to "Playing by the Rules," NPR, 30 April 2002. J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence Publishing, 2000). Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, The Christian in Today's Culture (Tyndale House, 1999). BreakPoint commentary no. 020205, "Do (and Believe) the Right Thing." BreakPoint commentary no. 020111, "The Wild Lie." Prepare your son or daughter for college! The Wilberforce Forum has put together a Worldview College Survival Kit to help college students equip their minds for worldview challenges


Chuck Colson


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