COMMENTARY: The Terrible Toll of Tolerance

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of RNS and the mother of two sons.)

(UNDATED) President Clinton will soon leave office and, as he pointed out in his recent State of the Union address, the country has never been in better shape. The economy is strong, there is no immediate threat of war and the crime rate has dropped dramatically.

But in our school things have never been worse, and there’s reason to believe Clinton is at least partially to blame.

On the same day the president gave his address, 14 juniors were either expelled or suspended from our school for cheating. While this may sound like a huge number, cheating isn’t particularly hard to do in our high school. Because we have an honor code, teachers routinely leave the classroom during tests, lockers are left unlocked and take-home tests are common.

Students sign a pledge at the beginning of each year saying they will not lie, cheat or steal. At the top of every exam they sign their names after the words, “I have abided by the honor code on this test.”

The most controversial aspect of the honor code at our school _ and most schools _ relates to whether a student is expected to turn another student in for an infraction. A corollary to this is whether you should “come clean” if you are found out or deny it and hope it goes away.

Should you tell the truth, you inevitably incriminate others. And in high school, lying, cheating and stealing are bad but ratting out your friends is almost unthinkable.

That’s where Clinton comes in. His steadfast, passionate denial of his affair with Monica Lewinsky serves as a stunning example to a young person who has made a mistake and has to decide between the truth and another lie.

The public crucifixion of Linda Tripp is a reminder that society may not like sin but what we really hate is a tattletale.

Even though most of us disliked what Clinton did, we lacked the will to remove him from office. We took a pragmatic look at the situation and essentially said, “No big deal.”

So in this context, parents, students, teachers and administrators are left to ponder how to make sense of honor in our school when we haven’t had a very good run of it in the most public debate of the presidency. How do we tell our kids it is a big deal?

We have talked about enforcing more rules at school: locking doors, proctoring tests, offering less latitude. These are all possible ways to cut down on cheating. But none of these encourages honorable behavior; each simply cuts down on dishonorable actions.

We have considered how parents have let their children down; how we’ve put too much pressure on acceptance into a top college, and thereby unwittingly told our kids that we will love them more if they earn a high grade-point average.

We’ve pondered the possibility of more education in ethics and morality and wrung our hands over the lack of spiritual input in many homes these days.

We have studied and debated and argued over the problems and solutions so long that most of us are soul-weary from the entire issue. And yet, we cannot seem to get beyond it.

When young people look at adults and remind us a president not only cheated but then denied it publicly and still enjoys a stunning approval rating, we have very little to say. When a student asks if he is expected to”Linda Tripp”another kid, we understand the cost of confrontation and exposure. When teen-agers look to their parents for guidance and see what we have been willing to tolerate, we all feel a little dirty.

Clinton will soon leave office, hoping to see his name associated with the booming economy and broad social reforms. But his legacy will be remembered at our school as one of the contributing factors to one of the saddest chapters in our history.

“If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage,” said the Suni poet Rumi in the 13th century. His prophetic words have a distinctly modern ring to those of us surveying the carnage at our school.

Most of us believe the honor code at our school is wounded but not dead. We believe this because our children seem to have the desire to live up to a higher standard. But for the adults in our community, our willingness to accept dishonorable actions in public has brought us face to face with the terrible personal damage such tolerance can cause.


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