Talk to your friends about the declining ethical standards of America's young people, and you're likely to hear dozens of explanations: the pressure of TV advertising, the greed-is-okay legacy of the Reagan years, the growing contrast between the haves and the have-nots, the capitulation of politicians to the "special interests," the societal emphasis on the individual (as opposed to group) interest and the disintegration of the family.

All true. But there is another, simpler reason why so many youngsters haven't learned the values espoused by their elders: They haven't been taught.

They haven't been taught by the institutions (home, school and church) traditionally responsible for direct ethical instruction, and they haven't been taught by the example of their elders. Yet much of our talk about values consists of exhortations to our children to "return" to where they've never been.

Jesse Jackson makes the point with reference to the current "Afrocentric" insistence that the schools teach ethnic history. "We agree that ethnic pride is a good thing, that it addresses a need," he says. "We want to teach it in school because we assume the children have not learned it elsewhere. Isn't it interesting that we can see the necessity of teaching ethnic pride and not see the greater necessity of teaching ethical pride? The Ten Commandments aren't being taught any more than black history. Don't you think that just might have something to do with the way our young people are behaving?"

Jackson's focus is on the amorality that allows some youngsters in the inner cities to commit the most heinous crimes without qualm or remorse. But while low-income neighborhoods may have a greater propensity for violence, the amorality that troubles Jackson pervades the society -- particularly the young.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics recently issued a report ("The Ethics of American Youth") that concludes that today's young people, in unprecedented proportions, "have severed themselves from the traditional moral anchors of American society -- honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility and civic duty."

Michael Josephson, president and founder of the institute located in Marina del Rey, Calif., writes of a large segment of the young adult population he labels the "I-Deserve-Its," or "IDIs."

"Their IDI-ology," he contends, "is exceptionally and dangerously self-centered, preoccupied with personal needs, wants, don't-wants and rights. The IDI world view results in a greater willingness to abandon traditional ethical restraints in the pursuit of success, comfort or personal goals. Thus, IDIs are more likely to lie, cheat and engage in irresponsible behavior when it suits their purposes. IDIs act as if they need whatever they want and deserve whatever they need -- as if winning is a basic right."

Nor, he says, did his report uncover any offsetting good news about the twentysomething generation, beyond the obvious fact that the generalizations do not apply to every member of the group. In fact, he says, he was so certain of a thoroughgoing assault on his message that the messenger armed himself with "solid evidence leading inescapably" to the report's conclusions.

"But when we went public," he said, "almost no one was concerned with the evidence -- the data on massive cheating, re'sume' fraud, assaults on teachers, venereal disease, pregnancies and materialism. Callers from all over the country agreed with the conclusions and told stories confirming our findings. And while many young people sought to exempt themselves, they generally agreed that a lot of the people they know are IDIs."

If you think that's bad news, consider this: These twentysomethings are just a few short years away from becoming the leaders of America. What will happen when their "IDI-ology" becomes the dominant theme of the society? What can the present generation of leadership do to limit the chaos?

In a word: Teach. By precept and example.

We have to understand that for perhaps the first time in our history our children are cut off from the values-forming myths that constitute our own moral compass: Bible parables, the tales of Honest Abe, accounts of self-sacrificing abolitionists, stories of men and women whose heroism consisted not in striking it rich but in doing the right thing. We have to reclaim these good examples. And we have to set good examples. No amount of talking about honest and decent behavior will suffice when our children see us subordinating integrity to expediency, cutting ethical corners or cheating on our taxes or our spouses.

It's not enough to mourn the good old days, when neighborhoods were safe and people cared about their neighbors. We have to do what we can to restore the values of the good old days, or the days ahead will be worse than anything we can now imagine.