A Meeting of Minds: Young and Old Share Views on Ethics Issues

By Linda Chion-Kenney — May 30, 1984 7 min read

“The U-2 is nobody’s damn business. When we’re on missions like that, it’s nobody’s damn business,” said Arthur E. Stanat, 79.

The question was whether President Dwight D. Eisenhower acted properly in 1960 when he initially refused to acknowledge that a U-2 reconnaissance plane, which was shot down in the Soviet Union, was, as universally believed, an American spy plane.

“Yes, you say something,” Mr. Stanat said, “but you don’t tell the truth. The U-2 plane was on a mission, a specific mission, a limited mission, maybe a one-time mission, and you have to develop a scenario to protect that mission, even if it’s lying. Do the Russians tell the truth? Do they? Why should people expect more from us than the Russians?”

No, said Ted Tomkins, 76, in a crisp British accent, people do not expect more from Americans than from Russians.

“Counter-intelligence on both sides is a can of worms,” he reasoned. “Lies and deception, as it were, are the common language on both sides. So the U-2 could well have been, to my mind, an intelligence plane flying over the United States. Couldn’t it? I mean hypothetically? What would you expect the Soviet Union to have done?”

But “in this can of worms we’re living in,” Mr. Tomkins concluded, “I think Eisenhower was wrong. The fact was on the table. He had to admit it. The integrity of this nation was imperiled by the denial. In the future it was just one more lie balanced against another, in my humble opinion.”

Belinda Berg, a 17-year-old senior at Georgetown Day High School, agreed. “What do you think,” she asked, “would have been gained by lying if it was clear to the Russians and the Americans what was going on? What was the gain in lying?”

So the discussion went one late afternoon this month as six high-school students and 13 older adults met in the Friendship Terrace retirement home in Washington, D.C., to debate the morality of lying. Their encounter was the fifth in a series arranged by a faculty member at the University of Maryland and funded by the Humanities Committee of the District of Columbia.

David Grimsted, the associate professor of history who launched the project, said the reading group was designed to encourage citizens to participate in the humanities: to read and think about issues, to formulate opinions, and to sharpen those opinions in a discussion and debate with others.

Mr. Grimsted said it was his idea to take the reading-group concept one step further and bring together residents of a retirement home and students of an inner-city high school.

“I had a good deal of curiosity how such obviously different groups, black and white, old and young, relatively well off and relatively poor, would work together,” he said. “You could hardly have a more strongly divided group within our society, and yet at the same time what impresses you is the mutuality of interest and attitude that comes across.”

In earlier weeks, the reading3group had met to discuss Women and Change; Blacks and Change; and The Court and Society.

On this day, their subject was “Integrity and Power.” The oldest participant was 94-year-old Lillian Wood and the youngest were Ms. Berg and five students in their junior year at Howard D. Woodson Senior High School in Washington.

For the six-week program, their textbook was Readings in American Values, 1960-1980, a collection of readings compiled by Mr. Grimsted. For their discussion on integrity and power, the participants were expected to read excerpts from Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life and Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men.

As they read, the participants were to consider: “Is honesty the best policy? Can one be a politician without resorting to some deceit? Were the deceptions of Nixon and his men different in kind from those of Deep Throat, or of Bernstein and Woodward? Were the Watergate lies greater or smaller than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s public promises of peace as he planned war, or of President Lyndon Johnson’s manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution?”

And, “if deceit is needed to get many kinds of jobs done, are there any bounds on dishonesty?”

Mr. Tomkins, who sat in a wheel-chair, said he was participating in the discussion group “to hear how young people are reacting to the world they have to live in. We’re old fogies. We don’t matter anymore. It’s young people, it’s their thoughts that matter.”

“If we old people can help guide them,” he said, “then we are doing a job.”

“They’re the important people,” he continued. “They are the people growing up. We’ve grown up and we’re on our way out. The world belongs to them, not us.”

Several of the high-school students said they were participating not only for the extra academic credit they would receive, but because they “liked to be around older people.”

Demetrius Reid, 17, said that has been the case ever since his grandparents died. Evelyn Bell, 16, said the group filled a void created by the absence of her grandparents, who live far away.

Many of the older participants said they enjoyed the chance to socialize, keep their minds active, exchange opinions, and hear new and different viewpoints.

“What we think and what we say,” Mr. Stanat said, “is influenced by our experiences and everyone has a different experience.”

” [These discussions] point up the fact that all people don’t think alike, even if they go to the same school,” he added, " because they have different experiences.”

As the debate wore on, Ms. Bell stood by her position: A lie can never be justified. Even if the Gestapo were banging on the door behind which Anne Frank was hiding, and even if the Gestapo were asking those looking on if Anne Frank lived there, Ms. Bell said that if she were asked, she would not tell a lie.

“But they’ll kill her,” argued Stephen Klaidman, a former reporter with The New York Times and the Washington Post who was invited to join the discussion group.

“But she’s there,” Ms. Bell answered. “I would say, ‘yes, she lives here, but you’ll have to look for her.”’

“Which is worth more,” asked Mr. Klaidman, who is now a senior research fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, “a human life or a lie?”

“I would say,” Ms. Bell answered evenly, that “ ‘yes, she lives here, but where she is at this moment, you’ll have to find out.”

The question of whether lying is ever justified arose again in a discussion on whether Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson were “deceptive” or “noble” in publicly promising peace as they secretly prepared for war.

“I think World War II was altogether different than the war in Vietnam,” said Toini P. Stanat, Mr. Stanat’s 79-year-old wife. “I think F.D.R. was justified, but I don’t condone Lyndon Johnson. The whole world was in danger in World War II against the Nazi threat. If Roosevelt hadn’t done as he did, where would the U.S. be now? You have to consider what was happening, where we’d be now.”

But Ms. Bell, born 27 years after America’s entry into the last world war, disagreed.

“I think there is no justification for lying or deceiving the public. Be evasive, beat around the bush, or come out with part of it. Change the subject, just don’t lie. I’m famous for changing the subject.”

In the end, conclusions were drawn.

“I don’t believe in lying. I just know there’s lying around,” one of the students said. “I’m not saying you don’t have to trust everyone. You should have a sixth sense and know who to trust and who not to trust.”

“Keep your innocence,” Mrs. Stanat advised.

“I think,” Ms. Bell said after the meeting, “that the older people feel there are situations where lying can be justified, but a majority of the younger people feel you shouldn’t lie. I think that’s because we’ve been taught that way. I’m not saying they weren’t taught that way, too, but as they experience different things, those things change their point of view to where they feel in some cases you can lie and it’s okay to lie.”

Kimberly Hines, 16, agreed. “Most of the older people felt if we said you should tell the truth, we were young and innocent, but if they wanted to tell a lie, they were old and experienced.”

And those variations in viewpoint, more than a consensus on whether honesty is the best--or, in some cases, the impossible--policy constituted the educational lesson Mr. Grimsted said he had hoped to impart to the students.

“They get some sense of how ideas and thoughts are simply not a product of the schools, but are integrated with one’s life in an important way,” Mr. Grimsted said. “Talking ideas with people who invariably try, or do, connect the general issues with their experiences gives to the student a sense of the continuity of education through life.”

“They realize,” he said, “that education is not only a school thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1984 edition of Education Week as A Meeting of Minds: Young and Old Share Views on Ethics Issues