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The ethics-challenged generation

"Millennials" plagiarize, cheat, lack accountability. None of which bodes well for the nation's future.

For the last five years, I've taught five sections of U.S. history at a rural Pennsylvania community college. That's about 150 students a semester.

By midterm, one-third of those students have dropped the course. Another third withdraw before the semester ends rather than risking an "F." Some students complain that my standards are too high. Others grumble that history is "boring."

In fact, my courses place the responsibility for learning on the student; I'm simply the facilitator. I don't focus on content as much as on the critical reading, writing and thinking skills that transfer across disciplines and help make people constructive members of society.

So please excuse me for sounding like a Dutch uncle, but I believe that this generation of students - the so-called millennial generation - lacks accountability. That does not bode well for our future.

Members of the millennial generation - those born between 1982 and 2002 - expect to be granted privileges without having to work for them. They've grown up in a world of instant gratification, dominated by computer games, e-mail and cell phones. They expect their teachers to "entertain" them, not challenge them. Often, when there is a challenge, few students rise to meet it.

More troubling, the millennial generation is apathetic about ethics. In a recent survey of almost 30,000 students by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute, 64 percent admitted to cheating on a test, and 36 percent reported that they had used the Internet to commit plagiarism. When confronted with an offense, 83 percent lied about it.

We are educating the next generation of public officials, bankers, business people, mortgage brokers, physicians and lawyers. Consider the implications of these statistics.

This generation contrasts with the one that came of age during the Great Depression and was battle-tested by World War II. That generation valued moral integrity, hard work, sacrifice, duty before pleasure, and adherence to rules. If we think our nation is experiencing economic and political turmoil today, it can only get worse with the kind of leaders our schools are educating now.

I would like to believe that my students are the exception. But I know better. Having taught for more than two decades, first in Philadelphia prep schools and later at a state university, I have seen a broad cross-section of students.

The students at a rural community college are a more accurate barometer of their generation than those who attend small private schools and state universities. Generally, the latter hail from wealthier backgrounds and are more academically motivated.

Perhaps rising tuition costs at the more selective colleges and universities will bring more motivated students to my rural community college. With a little luck, those more serious-minded students could have a "trickle-down" effect on their less-motivated peers. But I won't count on it.

Nor will I criticize my fellow teachers for the failures of the millennial generation. Most of them are experienced educators who are doing the best they can.

Ultimately, the millennials are accountable for themselves. Let's hope it doesn't take another Great Depression for them to meet the challenge.