Who’s Accountable?

A ticked-off educator laments our culture of irresponsibility.

Illustration by Jesse KuhnsMaybe I ask too much—of myself, of everyone. But I won’t apologize for my old-school standards—or my stubbornness or my pride. And I won’t back down from my contention that we’re breeding and rewarding a contagious culture of irresponsibility in this country to cover for gross inadequacies and incompetence.

As a nation, we need to take heed of our quickly disintegrating American dream. But instead, everybody wants a bailout. On the streets, it’s called a handout. Banks call it a loan; teenagers call it an allowance.

The last move before his exit, George W. Bush’s $17.4 billion car industry bailout (basically a few months’ allowance for the big three) sent the wrong message, especially to the young: Fail, then beg. Now, even with a new president, we’ve coughed up almost a trillion more dollars. The reality for most of us: If your business fails, you close your doors—no Monopoly money for you.

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How about the message sent by Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act? Long ago, if you didn’t do what was required in school, you failed—and learned from it. Today, as a veteran classroom teacher, I witness the results general irresponsibility garners. In teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech this year to two freshmen classes the week after the national election, only three students could cite the original source of the borrowed line “all men are created equal.”

I asked each class, “What would President Obama say if he walked in right now? He’d say, ‘My God, what did I get myself into? How can I unify a country that’s forgotten how it was founded?’”

On the way to school, I sometimes find myself behind a school bus that waits for its passengers to saunter out from inside their houses. I fume. Why wait at the stop—half a block away—if the bus will wait for you? In preparation for the “real world,” I remind students that when the buses aren’t yellow anymore, the opposing traffic doesn’t stop. Oh, and the bus won’t wait for you, either.

Last year, AT&T Wireless ran an ad for its unlimited texting plan. In it, a teenage girl begs her mother for the plan. Mom is confused. At the end, the frustrated kid says, “Oh, just buy me a puppy, then!”

Apparently, dogs are the perfect throwaway alternative for angst-filled teenagers who can’t get their way. A few days later, two Montgomery County girls smuggled a Chihuahua from a pet store.

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As adults, such teens become irresponsible contractors. They run traffic lights and expect opposing cars to permit their indiscretion. As parents, they overmedicate and label their children. After all, it’s easier than disciplining them.

Irresponsibility oozes from the mouths of sports heroes, too. Chase Utley dropped the F-bomb at the Phillies’ World Series victory parade last fall, perhaps costing himself millions of dollars in endorsements—and yet, a lot of kids thought what he did was cool anyhow. The Eagles’ Donovan McNabb freely acknowledged that he didn’t know the rules of the game that’s rewarded him so handsomely.

At the college and university level, presidents recently lobbied to drop the legal drinking age. Why? Read between the lines: so they could wash their hands of the hassles of enforcing it on campus.

It’s all so contagious.

Ultimately, the same ideals that started this country can still save it. In this land of opportunity, as life ebbs and flows with the stock market, we need to recall the integrity, grit, determination, discipline— and call to responsibility—of our passionate, patriotic forefathers. The earliest masses set sail to the New World on ships whose unpaid passages would, upon arrival, unsuspectingly cost them years of indentured servitude.

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Ah, the nation’s first credit crisis.

J.F. Pirro is Main Line Today’s senior writer and a dedicated educator.


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