Focus on ethics in the U.S. improving, but much work still to be done, CHARACTER COUNTS! program creator says

JosephsonA look at the current state of ethics in the United States brings both good and bad news, says Michael Josephson, founder of the institute that developed the CHARACTER COUNTS! youth-education initiative used in schools in Tennessee and across the nation.

When he began working with ethics issues, there was a challenge to convince people that character education was needed, said Josephson, founder and CEO of Josephson Institute of Ethics, speaking at a luncheon Thursday (Aug. 31) at Tusculum College.

While no one needs to be convinced of its importance anymore, Josephson quoted some sobering statistics about the current state of ethics among students in the classroom and in the corporate world. For example, he said that there continues to be significant rates of academic cheating, theft, underage drinking and drug use among youth, and the cases of financial fraud in companies such as Enron have not meant a better ethical climate in the corporate world, but that different types of misconduct have arisen. “I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic,” he said. “Improvements have been made, but there is still so much we can do.”

Improving character and ethical behavior in a community is difficult, but it is doable, Josephson said. It takes people declaring it is important to their communities and committing to measures such as educational programs that will make a difference. “No one person can do everything, but each individual can commit to doing what they can to make a difference,” he continued.

Josephson delivered the keynote address at the college’s Opening Convocation of its 213th academic year and then spoke at a luncheon for community leaders, college faculty and staff, and regional representatives from the First Tennessee Human Resource Agency, which coordinates CHARACTER COUNTS! programs in Northeast Tennessee and helped bring Josephson to campus. The agency and Tusculum have partnered in the past few years to present awards to volunteers in the region who are models of good character. The main award is named for Tusculum’s founders in recognition of the college’s tradition and continuing commitment to develop educated citizens distinguished by academic excellence, public service, and qualities of Judeo-Christian character. The luncheon was sponsored by First Tennessee Bank, Tusculum College, and the college’s Department of Museum Program and Studies.

Those working with programs that focus on character and ethics are facing the challenge of finding resources for programs that will make a difference in improving individual’s character, and thus bettering society, Josephson said.

He noted that CHARACTER COUNTS! has expanded in past years from the basic program aimed primarily at school children to programs involving sports teams, business and industry, the court system, law enforcement, and public administration. While character programs have grown in number and visibility, “the real gauge is have people learned?” Josephson asked. “People are much more willing talk about character and ethics than doing it.”

Josephson said he has worked with companies regarding ethics issues, but many don’t make changes because they are afraid of losing that edge over their competitors or fear falling behind others who continue to act unethically to get ahead.

The high-profile cases of companies of Enron have resulted in legislating morality in certain areas, but it hasn’t reduced the amount of misconduct, he continued. “There have been more people convicted – with serious sentences – of white collar crime in the past five years than in the past 100,” Josephson said.

Laws have been passed in the past few years to curb unethical behavior, he said, but in some ways, those laws can give people a license not to make ethical judgments of their own. “I would rather a person not do something unethical because they know it is wrong, than not do it because of a fear of punishment,” Josephson said.

Quoting statistics reported from surveys of high school students about their behavior, Josephson said that colleges and universities are behind the curve when it comes to helping students who these surveys show may not have a strong ethical foundation develop strong character.

It would not be difficult to interject some lessons about character and ethics into every subject, whether it be literature, history, business, or science, he said, and a program similar to the training CHARACTER COUNTS! provides to teachers about character instruction cannot be found on a college campus in the nation.

College athletics is treated as a business in the U.S., Josephson said. On almost every level, from youth league sports to professionals, athletes are put on a pedestal during their career. But, he asked, how have they been prepared for life after sports in an environment where coaches and players have been so pressured to win that it leaves no room for the great lessons of character that can be taught and learned on the playing field.

“Sports is a measure of our society,” he said. “The behavior of some spectators from the tee-ball level to professional sports has gone past intense, passionate cheering to behavior that is obnoxious and offensive.” The need for education is great not only for young people but also for parents and adults, he said.

“We don’t have a kid problem, we have an adult problem,” he said. “Kids do act different, but they are behaving the way we taught them to behave.” CHARACTER COUNTS! has parenting education programs, and that type of education needs to be a continuing thing for parents, Josephson said.

Adults are instructed that success in teaching character is found in the acronym “TEAM” – teach, enforce, advocate, and model, he said. “Adults need to look more closely at themselves and be more accountable,” he said.

When asked about the role of religion in character, Josephson said he would like to see religious groups take a greater role in character education and promotion. CHARACTER COUNTS! has programs tailored for Catholic and Jewish schools and is talking with a Islamic school about developing a curriculum.

Regardless of theology, religions have a common focus on individuals being good, and there are common characteristics they emphasize that are also found among the tenets of CHARACTER COUNTS! – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. “We secularized it because in such a diverse society as ours, we knew we had to,” he said.