A Remembrance of Virtues Past a Return to Old-Fashioned Ethics Is Becoming a National Cause

By Mary Rourke 1994, Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 8, 1994 | Go to article overview

A Remembrance of Virtues Past a Return to Old-Fashioned Ethics Is Becoming a National Cause


Mary Rourke 1994, Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


SOCIETY is taking a nose-dive. Sixty-two percent of Americans said they thought so in a recent Gallup poll. That number is up from 46 percent just 10 years ago.

Reversing the decline of common decency has become a national cause of late, attracting some of the country's most powerful people.

In Washington, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, actor Tom Selleck and others have proposed for October a National Character Counts Week, involving school programs to instill students with a sense of honesty, responsibility and respect.

The Character Counts Coalition, formed last year by the Josephson Institute for Ethics, also is working to teach core values to children. Members include Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Urban League and the 4-H Club.

Across the country, others with less clout are putting their own simpler, smaller-scale ideas to work. For all of them, building character is like building muscles: The old-fashioned way still works best.

The program getting the most attention comes in book form: "The Book of Virtues, a Treasury of Great Moral Stories." It is a collection of vintage myths, fairy tales, poems and political speeches that illustrate aspects of an excellent character. The Bible story of David and Goliath, for example, personifies courage, and two famous speeches exemplify perseverance - Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream." The author, William Bennett, intends for grown-ups to read the stories to children, teaching them such virtues as loyalty, hard work, compassion and respect.

That the book has spent 26 weeks on the best-seller list, with baby boomers as its best customers, doesn't surprise Bennett, who served as secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and head of the Bush administration's office of drug control policy.

"People think the country's going to hell," he says, ticking off a list of complaints: "Crime, family disintegration, social breakdown, sleaziness, general trashy behavior." Although he and his "The Book of Virtues" have touched a nerve, critics say the book is a platform for future political ambitions.

Still, the book's emphasis on a hot topic is calling new attention to nonpolitical character-building programs put into practice long before Bennett put his into words. …

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