Archives for the month of: December, 2011

Bronnie Ware is a singer and writer from Australia. For a number of years, she worked in palliative care (that is, attending to the dying). Out of that experience, she has written a book called The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying (affiliate link).

Photo by andronicusmax (Flickr)

As the year closes, and as we sweep away the past and look to the blank slate of the future, many of us are making “resolutions” or at the least setting their intentions. Bonnie’s list provides some insight as to what enduring goals might look like.

The top five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’m thinking about these ideas as I formulate my own set of intentions for 2012.

Just now I heard the doorbell ring. “I ran into your car,” says the guy at the door. (My car was parked on the street.)

He got it way worse than me. Crumpled hood, smashed grill. I had scratches on my rear bumper and some scrapes.

I finished the call with Geico and walked over to him to see how he was doing. He was crying. “I don’t have one dollar to get my car fixed. I just lost my job. I live in this car.”

I looked — a sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat. I was torn as to what to do. I was angry, and I felt pity at the same time. I have been in situations where I did not know how I was going to get through.

He could have just took off, but instead he took responsibility. That had to count for something, I thought. I gave him $20 for food and told him to take a deep breath and just do the next right thing, that it would all be OK.

He started crying again, as he got into his car. It started. I repeated, “It’s going to be all right,” and gave him a manly pat-pat on the roof of the car, as if to seal the deal.

I actually have no idea if it is going to be all right or not. I hope so.

I recently was asked to recap some of the research I have been fortunate to be a part of as it relates to Americans’ concerns when they think about the future. I’ve had a chance to review focus group findings (and conduct a few of my own) for a number of projects over the past twelve months, and a number of interesting themes have emerged.

I see seven related and interlocking concerns:

Photo by o5com (Flickr)

The “Deal” Is Falling Apart

What used to be the implicit deal between individuals and the future no longer holds true. It used to be that people had a sense of what they had to do in order to guarantee their economic security moving forward. Working hard, developing a trade or going to college, and playing by the rules, would be rewarded by a decent job, a decent living, and a decent retirement. No more. There are no longer any guarantees when it comes to the future.

Institutions Are Not Trustworthy

The “deal” referred to above was supported in large part by public institutions (I mean “public” in a broad sense): higher education, large employers, government agencies, community organizations. People no longer trust these institutions to do what they promise. (Even higher education, near the top of the list in terms of how much people find it trustworthy, only garners 35% trust.) Yet these institutions still control many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. The frustration this generates is palpable.

The Moral Compass Is Askew

People say they are worried that America’s morals are in decline. This is a broad-based worry. People are worried about public leaders acting hypocritically, about business leaders acting out of greed, about fellow community members acting out of selfishness. Because they can’t trust others to behave responsibly, people say they have in large part given up hope that better rules or better enforcement will fix the problem.

America’s Best Days May Be Behind Us

People are plagued with a nagging feeling that our best days are behind us. People say they are aware that in many cases the next generation will be worse off than now. They also worry about America’s place in the world — and have misgivings that other nations (especially China and India) are poised to take over the reins.

Leaders Are Not Up To The Challenge

People express skepticism that the current generation of leaders is really up to the tasks it has before it. The debt ceiling debacle was just another in a long line of failures of leadership. People are dumfounded by leaders who appear to be unable to drive progress of any sort.

We Can’t Work Together

At the same time, people lament that on an “ordinary people” level, we used to be able to work together productively — and they feel we have lost that. People say they are literally afraid of their neighbors and that public life even on the local level has become filled with shouting and anger. They feel people can’t put community ahead of individual.

The Elites Don’t Care, People Are Shut Out

People are really, really disgusted with elites — political, business, academic, and more. People think that elites have an easy life that is guaranteed — for instance, majorities of people in focus groups believe that elected officials get a salary for life and are shuttled around in limousines. They also believe leaders actively rig things so they can have it easier and easier, and that they work against the public’s interest at times on purpose.

It’s not a happy picture. America is in a dark mood, collectively. People are reluctant to express hope and, when they do, it sounds somewhat forced. For example, many adults say they think that today’s youth will be able to get good jobs because they will have technical skills — but scratch at the surface and the optimism vanishes.

The above is based on my analysis of work by a number of good friends (including John Doble, John Creighton, and Steve Farkas) and on some of my own work. I am sure there are other concerns that I do not touch on. I was trying to hit the overriding themes. What would you add?

I am speaking to a high school group later today about ethical dilemmas. I prepared this scenario to illustrate the four types of right-vs.-right ethical dilemma paradigms:

Photo by 'dok1' (Flickr)

The Dorchester School was a private boarding school in Fairbrook, Delaware that accepted students from sixth grade through senior year in high school. Founded by a husband-and-wife team of educators who fled the horrors of Nazi Germany, the school was famous for its humanistic philosophy and progressive values. It was also held up as an exemplar of academic success and good ethics.

Students from Dorchester were high achieving, honest and empathetic people. The Dorchester ethics code was a simple one, borrowed from West Point: “A Dorchester student does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

Megan Allen and Jane Friedman were Dorchester juniors. Megan had attended Dorchester since sixth grade. Jane, on the other hand, started in tenth grade. She found the transition very difficult at first, but Megan took her under her wing and made her feel welcome. Jane, who was a naturally shy person, credited Megan with turning what could have been a very lonely time into something that was beginning to show promise. Jane also found herself drawn to Megan’s charisma, as many in the student body were – she had that certain something that just made people want to be with her.

So Jane was crestfallen when she was looking for a stick of gum in Megan’s backpack and saw a printout of what looked like an Internet term paper. They had just submitted their first of two major papers for English. Looking at the paper in Megan’s backpack, it appeared that she had copied it pretty much word for word.

Jane was stunned. This seemed so unlike Megan. They studied together frequently, and Jane knew her not to be a cheater. Yet here was what looked like proof. She built up her courage and finally confronted Megan with what she had seen, hoping there was some logical explanation.

There was a logical explanation, but it did not make Jane feel any better. Megan had indeed purchased an online term paper. She was under so much stress, she said, with nightly lacrosse practice and so much other homework – she just cracked. She knew it was wrong. She promised that it would never happen again.

Jane wondered what she should do. On the one hand, this was an aberration and she felt sure that Megan would not do it again. And, she owed so much to Megan. On the other hand, the school’s rule was very clear: Not only was it wrong for Megan to plagiarize, but the school ethics code suggested that it was now Jane’s duty to tell the school what she knew.

While Jane pondered, Daniel Cray had his own decision to worry about. He was Megan’s English teacher. He knew Megan well, and he knew her parents well. They were generous donors to the school, athletic boosters, and always showed up at school meetings and functions. Yet, something about Megan’s recent paper did not seem right. He could not put his finger on it, but it seemed off. He pasted a particularly unique sentence into a search engine just to see what he would find – hoping that he would find no hits.

Unfortunately, he found a hit on an overseas online term paper site. Megan’s paper had clearly been purchased from a paper mill.

Cray pondered his next move. He certainly was within his rights to fail Megan. In fact, school policy suggested that was what he ought to do. However, he did have some leeway. He knew Megan well, and knew that this year she had been under a great deal of stress. She had never done something like this before.

Cray confronted Megan, and she confessed, giving the same explanation she had given Jane. In fact, she asked if Jane had told, and Cray said no, that he had figured it out himself.

Cray ultimately decided to give Megan a zero for the paper, but allow her to write another one at half credit. It was possible, if she did perfectly for the rest of the semester, that she could get a B. She was normally an A student, so this was not a small punishment. But Cray could have failed her for the whole class.

Cray wrote Dorchester’s head of school a memo about what he had decided. Cray felt that this was the kind of issue the head would want to know about.

Holly Blackwell now had her own problem to contend with. Blackwell was the Dorchester lacrosse coach. While Dorchester was a real success in many respects, it was not known as an athletic school. Truth be told, most of its teams fielded losing seasons. That was OK with most members of the community. However, this year the lacrosse team was different. Headed by Megan, who had innate skills and athleticism, the team was just a few games away from winning their regional championship. Dorchester was set to play a semifinal match against a tough team two days after Cray sent his memo.

Blackwell knew that, above all, Dorchester students and faculty were expected to do the right thing. And there was a policy that if a student is suspended for cheating they could no longer play sports for the remainder of the season. On one hand, Blackwell knew that, at a minimum, she should probably not allow Megan to play in the semifinal match.

However, on the other hand, Megan had not been suspended. She had gotten a different form of punishment. And, weighing even more heavily on Blackwell’s mind, was the fact that it would mean a great deal to the team – and to the Dorchester community – if they could say that they had at least made it to the finals. Without Megan they did not have much a chance.

Frank Shanahan also had a decision to wrestle with. As head of the Dorchester School, it was his job to set the right tone at the top. He strongly believed he had to lead by example. He always worked hard to figure out the right thing to do.

In this case, Shanahan thought Cray’s decision was right. Plagiarism could not be tolerated, but there were unusual circumstances. It was not right to be strict all the time in every case. He thought Cray had found a good middle ground.

However, Shanahan was worried about another facet of the issue. It seemed clear that Jane Friedman had known about the cheating and had not reported it.  The part of the school’s ethics code about “not tolerating those who do” was meant to cover just such a situation. Students are not supposed to put up with unethical behavior from their peers.

But, the episode had been handled and everyone was now moving forward. Cray had confronted Megan possibly before Jane had a chance to tell anyone. It would be easy to just move ahead and in many respects that would be the right thing to do. Shanahan made it a point to know as many students as well as he could – he knew Jane and knew that any punishment he could administer would likely be devastating to her. She was a person who had needed nurturing when she arrived and had begun to thrive as a result. Punishment for an ethics code violation would be a big step backwards for her.

However, Shanahan was worried about the precedent, too. That last part of the ethics code was tough to live up to – if he started to cut corners he could imagine that pretty soon it would be the piece of the code that everyone ignored.

The four dilemma paradigms are:

  • Truth vs. Loyalty
  • Justice vs. Mercy
  • Individual vs. Community
  • Short Term vs. Long Term

 

I am delighted to announce a new issue book developed by the Kettering Foundation for the National Issues Forums titled: Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?

This issue guide, authored by my good friend and colleague Scott London, is the latest in the Kettering Foundation issue book library of which I am executive editor.

Immigration In America: How Do We Fix A System In Crisis?

The new guide is available to purchase for download or as a hardcopy at the National Issues Forums Institute website.

From the issue guide:

Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?

Most Americans agree that our immigration system needs an overhaul. Too many immigrants slip across our borders undetected and too many are here on expired temporary visas. Backlogs and bureaucracy prevent high-skilled foreign workers from getting the permits they need and hinder family members from being reunited with their loved ones in the United States.

Tackling the immigration issue requires that we take a fresh look at it and get beyond the polarized debates that too often divide the country rather than bringing it together. Our challenge today is to build a system that reflects our essential values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. This issue guide explores three different options for doing that.

Option One: Welcome New Arrivals

America is a nation of immigrants, a people welded from many nations and races, bound together by a common vision of opportunity and freedom. That diversity has always been the backbone of America’s strength. A 21st -century immigration system must reflect these characteristic values along with a humanitarian commitment to refuges and those seeking freedom from persecution.

Option Two: Protect Our Borders

Some of America’s most serious social and economic problems are exacerbated by the influx of unauthorized immigrants. By failing to control illegal immigration, we’ve undermined our national security, stiffened competition for scarce jobs, and strained the public purse. This option argues for tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.

Option Three: Promote Economic Prosperity

Protecting American jobs while at the same time increasing economic competitiveness requires a multi-faceted immigration strategy, one that acknowledges the important contributions made by high-and low-skilled immigrants alike, but does not depress the wages of disadvantaged American workers or drain our public resources, especially during economic hard times.

Get the full issue guide here at the NIFI website.