Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
We all filed in to the SEFCU Arena on the UAlbany campus in a raucous spirit of joy and pride on Albany High School’s graduation day in June. Albany High is an inner city school, so my son graduated with friends and acquaintances from numerous social class, ethnic and economic backgrounds. He knows students who are the first to graduate high school in their families, and who grew up in some of the worst neighborhoods in the city without proper familial or educational support. Yet there they were, receiving high school diplomas, their tickets to potential success in the future.
Knowing that he was speaking to a bunch of teenagers, the keynote speaker -a renowned scientist and entrepreneur- presented a very funny Powerpoint slide show. It bore the simple message that in this fiercely competitive world, if you want to stay ahead of the game, you have to work hard, be competitive, and innovate aggressively. I found his style and message refreshing, even inspiring, until he started talking about his high tech business version of “the golden rule,” which was a strange echo of Darwin’s evolutionary theory that the members of a species who survive are those who adapt most readily to change. I was dismayed, to say the least. When did the biblical commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” cease to hold the golden rule title and get replaced by a message amounting, however jovially, to tired truisms about getting ahead in a “dog eat dog” world? My wife wisely reminded me that some of the students he was addressing are from such disadvantaged backgrounds that they need all the inspiration they can get. Nonetheless, I left the ceremony fearful that my son and his peers had been charged by this influential man with nothing more than the usual narcissistic obligation to self framed as an iron clad rule of nature, and aping the language of religious ethics. His speech begged a larger question for me about American values that nags at me constantly: have we have forgotten or been scared away from teaching children the fine art of being a mensch, the popular Jewish term for a good and decent person, which is the essence of “the golden rule”?
I recognize that many teachers work hard to raise classroom communities based upon the core values of compassion, cooperation and character. But these pedagogic endeavors quickly fade as the pressures of academic success, college admissions, and standardized tests overwhelm high school students and teachers. It does not help that public school teachers are justifiably reticent to promote their students’ character development because it feels too much like religious training being snuck into a public education setting. However, they forget about us, the religious leaders and educators who are not interested in fighting culture wars with them. We don’t want to teach creationism as science, ban books in school libraries, or overrun school boards. What we want is to make common cause with parents and teachers to help children live according to the moral values of personal civility, decency and responsibility, and compassion.
There is a broader consensual dialogue about combating culturally ingrained incivility and selfishness that can bridge the religious-secular divide. We are a culture in search of a common educational language that can help the genuinely nice kids of my son’s generation value integrity and kindness as much as they value getting a high paying job. Emerging from the mess of Bernie Madoff and the current recession, we have been humbled and devastated by the betrayal of values that these tragedies represent. Perhaps we are ready to restore the golden rule to its rightful place in the private and public spaces of our lives and those of our children. Perhaps we are ready to re-learn the fine art of being a mensch.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.