Lying on the grass prostrate I wanted to die. Earlier that day I had been caught cheating on a health education test in high school. The teacher who caught me was the head of the athletic department and he said to me, “the fact that you were recently elected to be the captain of the football team makes your unethical behavior all the more disgraceful.”
He was right.
Getting caught cheating in high school taught me a lesson I have never forgotten: that the person I am most accountable to is myself.
I never wanted to feel such self- loathing again. I had compromised my honesty and integrity to get a good grade. At the time, the grade seemed more important than doing the right thing. The pressure at home to get good grades had somehow overridden my personal code of ethics.
Now, 40 years later, as a professor at Penn State, I find myself reflecting back on my failure of personal integrity so long ago.
I remembered it hoping to understand why some individuals in positions of leadership at Penn State so woefully failed in responding to Jerry Sandusky’s criminal behavior.
Years ago, some of my students provided insights as to why an individual’s moral compass can be so misguided at times. I asked a class what they thought our society valued most. Students separately wrote their answers on a piece of paper. Universally they wrote “money and status.”
A week later I asked them what they as individuals valued most. Most wrote “family and friends.” What struck me was the stark contrast of these dueling priorities — between striving for professional success and nurturing meaningful relationships.
Why when allegations of Sandusky’s deviant behavior were being made to Penn State officials were they more worried about damage control to the university’s reputation than the damage done to children’s lives? This dearth of empathy for the children’s well-being seems symptomatic of a society often consumed with being successful too often at the expense of doing what is right.
In a society exposed to a constant stream of images and messages extolling the virtues of celebrity and financial success, how do we keep from cutting corners when it comes to ethical behavior?
Some of the answers can be found in a documentary titled “The Finland Phenomenon.” For the past several years, Finland’s educational system has been ranked No. 1 in the world. In its system of education there is little testing or homework. Education is based on trust and respect and teaching students how to think. If a student starts falling behind in his or her studies, everyone in the class is responsible to try and help that student improve.
Sociologist Richard Sennett has shown people are more productive in a cooperative environment than a competitive one.
As it turned out, getting caught cheating in high school was a blessing for me. Over the years, when tempted to rationalize doing something unethical, I often remembered my pledge years ago to do what was right.
When the students said they most valued family and friends, their sentiments reflected what is ultimately our greatest measure of success: how we treat each other.
An elementary school teacher once said, “What matters most to students is not how much you know but how much you care.”
Chris Staley is a distinguished professor of art at Penn State and 2012-13 Penn State laureate.