Derrick Z. Jackson

America’s crisis of integrity

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / May 29, 2010

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WHEN EMTs with fake credentials come running at you with a defibrillator, that ought to shock us as to how dishonest our society has become.

The state has discovered that at least 200 emergency medical technicians and paramedics in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are speeding toward emergencies with false medical training credentials. According to the Globe, the EMTs obtained fraudulent certificates from companies to help them avoid the time and cost needed to recertify every two years. In Boston, 18 firefighters apparently were paid up to 37 1/2 hours of overtime to attend training classes they did not go to — on the taxpayer’s dime.

So far, the state says it believes no one has been injured by uncertified personnel, but this is the latest in an unrelenting string of stories of moral bankruptcy. Some involve individuals such as the Harvard University senior who faked his way into school; US Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who wrongly said he served in Vietnam; and investment fraud king Bernie Madoff. Then there is the wreckage of institutional disasters, such as the state Probation Department’s patronage scandal exposed by the Globe, the Wall Street collapse, and the Bush and Obama administrations exempting offshore drilling and seismic projects from environmental impact review, including BP’s ill-fated Deepwater Horizon.

“There are linkages to all these things,’’ said Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “This is a worldwide phenomenon tied to very high-stakes environments in education and business where people perceive they must do anything they can, hyper-competitive environments where the goal is not just to do well but to get ahead of other people. Unless we address it, we’re going to have more of what we’ve seen.’’

Fishman said the EMT scandal is poignant because “it is one of the things people can see in a concrete way. It is hard for people to connect to what impact cheating on an English exam or history exam has for the greater society. But people can really relate to the possible harm of a dishonest medical person, a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or EMT. We have a video where someone says ‘A dishonest pharmacist can kill you.’ ’’

Until Americans relate to all the harms, we should not be surprised by anything. Cheating is as American as a rotten apple pie. According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics biennial studies of the behavior of American youth, two-thirds of students admit cheating on at least one test in the past year. Yet nearly everyone, 93 percent, claims to be satisfied with their personal ethics and character. In another study last year, the institute found that half of teenagers 17 and under believe lying and cheating are necessary to succeed. High school students who cheated at least twice on exams are three times more likely as adults to lie to customers in business transactions.

Fishman said CEOs and teens now give her the same reasons that people cheat: competitiveness and time pressure. “It is a vicious cycle,’’ she said. “Young people are cynical because adults give young people plenty of evidence to make them think that being dishonest is what you must do in corporations. Young people then imitate what they think they need to do and when they get to the corporation, they are already familiar with the behaviors and continue them.’’

From solitary incidents that may deprive a deserving person a spot at an elite institution to acts that wipe out wildlife, ruin fishing communities, or bring an entire nation to its financial knees, America is clearly in a crisis of integrity.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

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