01/24/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

The Value of Values in Education

Every two years the Josephson Institute of Ethics sends out a report card on high school students who admit to stealing, cheating and lying, and the results of the survey are always a cause for alarm with headline writers, educators and parents because it's a wakeup call about how miserably we're doing as a nation with educating our young people about values.

Things that might have come naturally for previous generations, such as telling the truth, have unfortunately become problematic in 21st century America.

This year's survey, however, had some minimally encouraging results: For the first time in a decade, the number of students who said they cheated, lied and stole decreased.

Results of the survey of 23,000 high school students showed that those who admitted to cheating on an exam in the past two years dropped from 59 percent to 51 percent.

Those who said they lied to a teacher about something important dropped from 61 percent in 2010 to 55 percent.

And those who stole from a store decreased from 27 percent to 20 percent.

Despite the favorable trends, which Michael Josephson, the president on the institute, viewed as "a pretty good sign that things may be turning around," there was another unsettling statistic: 45 percent of the boys surveyed and 28 percent of the girls believed that "a person has to lie and cheat at least occasionally sometimes in order to succeed."

There you have it -- a virtual indictment of our education system, parenting and the U.S. workplace. The sad reality is that lying and cheating on the job and in the classroom is a commonly accepted practice.

We have a crisis of values in America, and it's not just among high school students. The Great Recession, which led to a serious loss of wealth and jobs for Americans, was primarily the result of greed and a lack of values, manifested in the mortgage meltdown and Bernie Madoff-like ponzi schemes. These questionable and criminal activities are symptomatic of greed in an age of excess, where values are only given lip service.

But higher education has a purpose, and ultimately that purpose must be founded on enduring values. That means at the most fundamental level, we have to teach students the difference between right and wrong, and make sure they know it's an important distinction. Muddying the waters when it comes to ethical decisions, whether in corporate America, law or business, is only another form of lying. It will be a long way back, but we in education have a serious moral obligation to do our part.

The American public realizes there is a crisis of values, and nowhere is that crisis more evident than in business. A poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus last year showed that eight in 10 Americans believe Corporate America's moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction.

More than nine in 10 say executives are governed by self-interest, including advancing their careers, personal financial gain, increasing profits and gaining advantage over competitors. At the same time, 77 percent of the responders believe it is possible to be successful and ethical. If Americans believe in honesty and integrity, why are our young people missing the mark?

What is to be done? At Sacred Heart, values are central to our curriculum. Learning to live a principled life requires training and education. Our core curriculum is called The Human Journey. The Human Journey focuses on four fundamental and enduring questions of human meaning and value:

1. What does it mean to be human?
2. What does it mean to live a life of meaning and purpose?
3. What does it mean to understand and appreciate the natural world?
4. What does it mean to forge a more just society for the common good?

By their very nature, these questions lend themselves to thought and discussion around ethics, morals and values.

In addition, every student must take a capstone course that focuses on the practice of ethical thinking and moral decision-making. This dialectic in the classroom is how values are shaped in young people.

We also recently hosted the Northeast Regional Ethics Bowl, which is sponsored by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Some 14 colleges and universities sent students to consider ethical cases before a panel of judges. In the end, the ability to cut to the heart of an ethical quandary and make a sensible moral decision is something that comes with practice based on a fundamental understanding of right and wrong, which we work to provide our students.

As a nation, we have a long way to go to get America back where it should be. As educators, parents, business executives, political leaders, journalists and religious leaders, we have a serious obligation. Once cheating and lying become culturally acceptable, a society -- not to mention a civilization -- is clearly endangered. There is much work to be done, and young people must be taught how important values are to them and to our future.