All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1985

Set the Standard High

Mr. Peterson is a free-lance writer in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, anxious to share some of the lessons he’s learned concerning the freedom philosophy.

One of my former colleagues developed a reputation for strictness as a teacher. He was a stern disciplinarian, a stickler for detail, and a fanatic for punctuality.

Although negative comments were frequently heard from his students, after their graduation they invariably looked back on his classes and expressed appreciation for his toughness. They recognized that it was because of his high expectations that they had learned English grammar and literature.

It is a time-proven fact that one tends to get out of organizations and individuals what he expects of them. We even see this principle at work in ourselves with what has been called self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have a need, both as a nation and as individuals, to set our standards high. This includes our expectations for our governments and their officials, our educational institutions and their teachers, and our religious organizations and their leaders. But it is even more important that we set high standards for ourselves as individuals.

Too often we are guilty of expecting more from others than we dare demand of ourselves. The individual is the foundation of society, and “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) On the other hand, if each individual keeps his own standards high, the other elements of society will take care of themselves.

How can this be accomplished?

First, we can demand honesty and integrity of ourselves in business and personal life. We can pledge ourselves to maintain personal morals and professional ethics that are above reproach. We can temper all of our actions by the consistent application of the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matthew 7:12)

Second, we can discipline ourselves to continue our own self-improvement and self-education. Will Rogers, that august philosopher and conveyor of common sense, put it so clearly when he said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”

In his book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill wrote, “Successful men, in all callings, never stop acquiring specialized knowledge related to their major purpose, business, or profession.” One who is not continually learning is doomed to failure. On the other hand, there is no limit to the successes that can be achieved by the one who will continue learning.

Third, those of us who have families of our own can pass our high standards on to our children. Continual education by itself is insufficient. “The improvement of the understanding is for two ends,” wrote John Locke, “first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” Why shouldn’t we start with those closest to us, our families?

We can teach our children to respect the lives, rights, and properties of others; to appreciate and defend their own freedoms; to faithfully fulfill their personal duties and responsibilities; and to work hard, giving a day’s work for a day’s pay. We can teach them, by word and example, a positive attitude toward the life of freedom. We can encourage them to produce to their maximum potential, which may require some seemingly impossible expectations, but, as John Stuart Mill wrote, “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do never does all he can.”

Finally, we can look to the future with the view of perpetuating and improving upon the “American dream.” As individuals are successful in setting and achieving their own increasingly idealistic goals, the nation as a whole will benefit and will become more successful in fulfilling and perpetuating that dream. By raising our standards as individuals, high standards can be effected in government, education, religion, and the rest of society around us. As Samuel Smiles wrote, “Every man’s first duty is to improve, to educate, and to elevate himself, helping forward his brethren at the same time by all reasonable methods. The man who improves himself improves the world.”

High personal standards will produce high political standards. A free political system tends to produce leaders who are representative of the people who elect them. If those who vote have low expectations of those they elect, the elected tend to exhibit low ethical standards with impunity. And as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales, “If gold doth rust, what shall iron do?”

On the other hand, if we, as a nation of individuals, set high standards for government in the areas of leadership, justice, and freedom, unethical and disreputable officeholders find it more difficult to “do their own thing.” They tend to recognize their responsibilities to the electorate. They promote the interests of freedom and steer government toward the fulfillment of its only legitimate function, i.e., the protection of life, liberty, and property.

At the same time, however, we must be alert to the presence of evil forces at work that would lead our society into ever-degenerating socialism and serfdom. John Philpot Curran sounded this warning in a speech in 1790: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

We as individuals can also set high standards for our educational systems, both public and private. We can insist on freedom of choice, noninterference from government in the marketplace of education, and high quality in curricula and achievement. We can work to insure that all private educational institutions—whether operated for financial, religious, or philosophical motives—remain free to offer their services to the consumers and to provide a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

When people are free politically and economically, freedom of religion will also be evident. In the free market one religion need not fear any other religion. There is complete openness and liberty. Government acts only as a peacekeeper, protecting the free exercise of each religion while refraining from establishing any single one as the sole, approved religion. This is guaranteed in the First Amendment of our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”

The opposite of religious freedom is a state religion forced upon all regardless of conviction or personal preference. History clearly records the results of such a condition, whether it be a Roman Catholic Inquisition in Europe, an atheistic humanism in Communist nations, a Puritan witch-hunt in New England, or an Islamic jihad in the Middle East. Religious dictatorship is never compatible with personal or economic freedom.

Living as we do in a nation which purports to defend freedom of religion, we can expect our religious leaders to guide us into the spiritual truths which best bring about individual and societal stability, freedom, and prosperity. We can meditate upon and practice our beliefs without fear of persecution. And if at any time we believe another religion or sect provides for our needs better than the one to which we currently subscribe, we can reject the old and embrace the new.

Yes, we need to set the standard high in our nation. But, as in all aspects of a free society, the burden of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the individual. That’s you and me. Let’s not expect the government to do it for us. Let’s not wait for someone else to take the lead. Let’s seize the initiative and do our part.