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Schools that graduate thieves

January 01, 2006|Dennis Prager | Dennis Prager's nationally syndicated radio show is heard daily in Los Angeles on KRLA-AM (870). He may be contacted through his website:

ASSUMING YOU can name the Ten Commandments -- meaning, you've received some education outside a secular high school or university -- which of them is the most violated?

I offer "Do not steal."

Other than worshipping false gods, none other comes close.

People increasingly assume that stealing isn't that big a deal, or they deny they engage in theft when in fact they do.

A number of years ago, I lectured -- in front of cameras filming for a syndication pilot -- to three groups of high school students in Cleveland. The students represented diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. I asked them to raise their hands if they would take something from a department store without paying for it -- if they were absolutely assured they would not get caught.

The vast majority raised their hands. They did so knowing they were on camera! That fact is vital to understanding the contemporary problem.

In the past, many young people stole -- cash from a parent's wallet, candy from a store, etc. But they knew they were stealing, and they would not have proudly announced their thievery in public. They recognized that they had -- permit me to use the word -- sinned.

Not today. For example, vast numbers of young people download copyrighted music from the Internet and, more than ever before, cheat on tests. And many would agree with the high school students in Cleveland -- it's OK if they don't get caught.

Here's why:

* Many young people are taught little or nothing about character development in secular schools, where nearly all spend most of their day. "Right" and "wrong" were replaced in the 1970s with "How do you feel about it?"

* To the extent that schools deal with right and wrong, it is in the arena of social values, not personal behavior. Students are taught what the schools deem correct positions on matters of social concern -- such as war, the environment, social justice -- but little about personal integrity. At the entrance of a highly regarded Los Angeles public school, there is a sign calling for world peace in four languages. Other signs on campus similarly exhort students to adopt various social positions. Not one sign addresses self -- as opposed to social -- amelioration.

* To the extent that demands are made on young people, they concern health, not integrity and character. Smoking, for instance, is villainized. Copying software, downloading music without paying for it, cheating on tests, lying on insurance claims are not.

* The schools' dominant liberal-left attitudes toward big business and the poor have deeply affected young people. The Cleveland students' favorite rationalization for shoplifting was that they were stealing from a large department store. Most said they would not steal from a family-owned shop. Big business is so routinely demonized in schools that many young people feel no moral obligation toward it. This moral indifference continues into adulthood. Hence, the number of adults who exaggerate their insurance claims. A moral obligation to the insurance industry? Hah!

* The left-leaning education system similarly rejects property as sacrosanct. "All property is theft" declared the early French socialists, an idea that lingers to this day on the left. This helps explain last year's Supreme Court ruling that private property may be forcefully taken from citizens not only for the public good (to build a needed highway) but also to enable private companies to develop an area to create a larger tax base for government.

* Many people define an action as right or wrong based solely on whether or not it hurts someone. Although that is largely appropriate, it is easily misused. People who steal from a department store, file a false insurance claim, download music without paying, repay no debts after recovering from bankruptcy, etc., engage in such thievery because they convince themselves that no one is hurt.

* For too many people, what's legal is defined as moral, what's illegal as immoral. But it's often legal -- but not moral -- to steal. For instance, taking half an hour of a camera salesman's time so he can show and explain the pros and cons of various cameras to you, then asking him where on the Internet you can get your favorite camera cheaper, is no different from pickpocketing his wallet -- you're stealing his time and money. It's legal, but it's thievery. As is "buying" a dress to wear for a weekend knowing that you intend to return it Monday for a refund.

"Do not steal" is the mother of the other commandments. Murder is stealing a life. Adultery easily leads to stealing a spouse. Coveting is planning to steal what belongs to another. False testimony steals justice. Not honoring parents steals the status of fatherhood and motherhood.

If people lived by "Do not steal" alone, the world would be a near-utopia.

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