How Times Have Changed


Having been born in 1936 has allowed me to witness both societal progress and retrogression. High on the list of things made better in our society are the great gains in civil liberties and economic opportunities, especially for racial minorities and women. People who are now deemed poor have a level of material wealth that would have been a pipe dream to yesteryear’s poor. But despite the fact that today’s Americans have achieved an unprecedented level of prosperity, we have become spiritually and morally impoverished compared with our ancestors.

Years ago, spending beyond one’s means was considered a character defect. Today not only do people spend beyond their means but also there are companies that advertise on radio and TV to eliminate or reduce your credit card and mortgage debt. Students saddled with college loans have called for student loan forgiveness. Yesterday’s Americans would have viewed it as morally corrupt and reprehensible to accumulate debt and then seek to avoid paying it. It’s nothing less than theft. What’s worse is there’s little condemnation of it by the rest of us.

Earlier this year, as a result of a budget crunch, the Philadelphia School District had to lay off 91 school police officers. During the 1940s and ’50s, I attended Philadelphia schools in poor neighborhoods. The only time we saw a policeman in school was during an assembly period when we had to listen to a boring lecture about safety. Because teacher assaults are tolerated — 4,000 over the past five years in Philadelphia — school police are needed. Prior to the ’60s, few students would have thought of talking back to a teacher, and no one would have cursed, much less assaulted, a teacher.

I couldn’t have been more than 8, 9 or 10 years old when one time, on the way home from school, my cousin and I were having a stone fight with some other youngsters. An elderly black lady walked up to my cousin and me and asked, “Does your mother know you’re out here throwing stones?” We replied, “No, ma’am,” praying that the matter rested there. Today an adult doing the same thing risks being cursed and possibly assaulted. Fearing retaliation, adults sit in silence as young people use vile language to one another on public conveyances, in school corridors and on the streets.

Yesteryear there was little tolerance for the kinds of crude behavior and language that are accepted today. To see a man sitting on a bus or trolley car while a woman is standing used to be unthinkable. Children didn’t address adults by their first name. By the way, over the course of my nearly 45 years of teaching, on several occasions, students have addressed me by my first name. I have told them that I don’t mind their addressing me by my first name but that my first name is Professor.

Much of what’s accepted today would have been seen as bizarre and lowdown yesteryear. Out-of-wedlock childbirth was a disgrace and surely wouldn’t have occasioned a baby shower. Popular TV shows such as “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Maury” feature guests who openly discuss despicable acts in their personal lives, often to the applause of the audience. Shame is going the way of the dinosaur.

You say, “Williams, you’re just old-fashioned and out of touch with modern society.” Maybe so, but I think that a society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values. These behavioral norms — transmitted by example, word of mouth, religious teachings, rules of etiquette and manners — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important legal thou-shalt-nots — such as shalt not murder, steal, lie or cheat — but they also include all those civilities one might call ladylike or gentlemanly behavior. Police officers and courts can never replace these social restraints on personal conduct. At best, laws, police and the criminal justice system are a society’s last desperate line of defense.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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