There are some things that are so alien to your character that you -- almost literally -- cannot do them.
You cannot, no matter how much you need the money, cheat the blind news vendor. You cannot, no matter that you will never be found out, snatch a watch off an old lady's arm or inflict gratuitous pain on another human being or deliberately ruin a lovely work of art.
These built-in limits on our behavior seem almost natural. And yet, there are people, including a frightening number of young people, who seem almost devoid of such controls. They may refrain from certain actions out of fear that someone will make trou- ble for them, or call the police, or punch their lights out, but not because of any self-imposed limits on their behavior.
Nor is this self-contained limitation, this moral gyroscope, merely a negative control. There are also things that some of us almost have to do: keep our commitments, pay our bills, give a reasonably honest day's work for our wages, return found wallets.
There are those who believe the absence of these internal controls are a major reason not just for crime but also for the unemployment that plagues certain segments of the society.
A recent report commissioned by some of the country's top business leaders says the inculcation of these positive character traits consti- tutes an "invisible curriculum" that the schools are neglecting. The result, according to the report, is that a number of young people leave school with needlessly limited job prospects.
The New York-based Committee for Economic Development, whose 225 trustees are mostly top corporate executives, said the business world counts character and work habits as at least as important as academic skills in determining employability. But, according to the 107-page report, "Investing in Our Children," the schools frequently fail to stress even such basics as teamwork, honesty, self-discipline and reliability.
"If schools tolerate excessive absenteeism, truancy, tardiness, or misbehavior, we cannot expect students to meet standards of minimum performance or behavior, either in school or as adults," the report said.
Its conclusions are strikingly close to those reached by George Washington University's Amitai Etzioni in a study released last spring. According to Etzioni, the reasons most frequently given for youthful unemployment -- poor reading and math skills, poor English, "functional illiteracy" -- are not the real reasons. The fundamental problem, he said, is the failure of some families to help their children learn such attitudes as industriousness, respect for rules and authority, and self- discipline. And the schools, particularly those with too little structure and discipline, tend to make matters worse. The result, according to Etzioni:
"Many young people are unable, for psychic reasons, first to learn effectively in the schools, and then to function effectively in the adult world of work, community and citizenship. The root problem is not that millions of high school graduates have great difficulties in reading, writing and arithmetic; these all-too common de- ficiencies are consequences of insuf- ficient self-discipline, of inade- quate ability to mobilize self and to commit."
The reports tell us what we already know, even if we haven't quite figured out what to do about it. "Values clarification" clearly hasn't worked, and anything that smacks of teaching "morality" runs the risk of being disallowed as unconstitutional "religious instruction."
Maybe if we call it "character development," we can find a way to instill in our children those traits that, for our sake as well as theirs, they so desperately need.