In her history of only 227 years, America has become the showcase of the world in providing liberties that allow the human spirit to soar to the heavens. Those entities in our society that have promoted or enhanced the good of all, such as education, medicine, government and religion, have enjoyed a degree of respect–even sacredness–that long exempted them from public scrutiny and criticism.
Not any longer.
For example, there was a time in our history when school teachers were above question in matters of integrity and discipline. A student or parent would never dare challenge the authority or actions of an educator. To be punished at grade school, especially for disrespect to the teacher, meant being punished at home as well. Education was sacred in a society that provided an opportunity to escape the shackles of ignorance and poverty and obtain a better way of life.
Likewise, medicine and physicians enjoyed the same degree of reverence. Accountability for the actions of physicians in seeking to rid humanity of debilitating diseases and illness was beyond question.
While elections were held to provide a modicum of accountability in the political arena, politicians were normally viewed more as public servants than greedy, power-hungry politicos. And government, though often criticized as ineffective and inefficient, was responsible for the vehicle by which these institutions of learning, health and a free-enterprise system have flourished.
In recent years, however, practitioners in all of these arenas have become objects of severe scrutiny. The systems of education and medicine, once beyond the purview of public accountability, are now being challenged not only theoretically, but legally. Government and politicians are reaping a backlash of voter hostility in the rejection of legislation and recalling elected officials.
Even religion, particularly Christianity, has been losing its revered place in society. It has been gradual, although events in recent months have escalated the process.
There was a time when worship and Bible study, formerly known as Sunday school, were of such importance that Christians would do nothing else on Sunday. It was not profitable for the business world to provide conveniences for shopping, dining and entertainment on Sundays. Even society reflected the sacredness of the day.
Likewise, ministers of the gospel were held in high esteem. Their presence motivated the best from parishioners, and no one doubted or questioned the motives of the “man of God.” Unfortunately, conduct by a few, but far too many, ministers and priests have shaken the foundation of religion, which has been in the forefront of providing education, healthcare and a moral standard for public officials as well as the citizenry.
In fact, it is difficult to find any institutions in our society that have not been tainted in recent months by scandal. Even one’s religion seems suspect as leaders caught up in these scandals tout strong religious convictions, while breaking laws and robbing their employees of earned retirement and investment benefits.
Regardless of the reasons, we find ourselves in an age cynicism. Despite the gloomy scenario, all of us, not just the professionals, must share in the current malaise. For you see, in this age of specialization, we have abrogated our responsibilities to the professionals.
We call the police instead of intervening in crime for fear of personal harm.
We send our children to schools and/or Sunday school with seldom a visit to learn firsthand about the person we have entrusted our most precious resource to and how we might assist him or her.
We trust our health to physicians and hospitals without so much as a question about alternatives or side effects of current treatments.
We trust our savings and retirement benefits to professional money managers with little or no knowledge of their expertise, and with little or no questioning of what is taking place. Our numbers, not our names, have become more important.
An antidote for the current cynicism is to get personally involved. In our earliest years, there were few professionals. The eyes and ears of the community provided oversight and protection. A man’s word was his honor (hers too).
Granted, time and specialization have made it mandatory for professionals to develop and manage our institutions; however, maybe it is time for each of us to become more personally involved with these professionals in dealing with our children, lives, health, safety and resources.
All of us have a stake in this enterprise.
Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from Samford University after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. A slightly different version of this column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.