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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Character matters

by Mike Masterson | September 5, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

Imagine the pride and joy a graduating high school senior might feel to learn they are among only 8 percent of applicants accepted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

The brutal process of meeting admission standards, and being nominated and selected for such a rare honor instills justifiable pride and a sense of achievement in a nominee and his or her family. Plus the opportunity comes with all expenses covered to receive a degree from one of the world's most prestigious and challenging universities.

Those eligible have very high SAT and ACT scores, along with a resume of extracurricular activities, volunteerism and meaningful evidence of the desire for self-improvement. Applicants must be nominated either by a member of Congress, a state senator, the U.S. vice president or the academy's superintendent.

Bottom line, to proudly arrive for one's first day at the Naval Academy requires abundant effort, as well as political connections, from those who believe in their character and abilities to become a leader.

All that said, I was floored the other day to see that 18 midshipmen were expelled or resigned and another 82 sanctioned by the academy after cheating in a physics course. That amounts to 100 Navy officers-in-waiting who were involved in various degrees of wrongdoing.

Vice Admiral Sean Buck, the academy's superintendent, summarized this slew of dismissals and sanctions by saying: "Character development is an ongoing process, and midshipmen must make the choice to live honorably each day and earn the trust that comes with a commission in the Navy or Marine Corps."

When the barnacles are scraped from the scandal, I wonder if these students who had brilliant futures ahead will reflect on how the negative consequences to their actions will follow them throughout their lives. Was a grade in this class worth their futures?

That brings me to phase two of today's column: The significance of our character to who we truly are as human animals. Are we considered trustworthy and honorable, or more interested in self-serving behavior and salving egos?

From as early as I can remember, that was drilled into me and my two siblings mostly by my late father (the disciplined Army lieutenant colonel). Character and integrity were big deals with Rue Masterson, as they clearly are in the military academies.

He'd grown up without the guiding hand of a father to enlist as a private at age 19 and work his way up the ranks through officer candidate school to lieutenant and beyond. He achieved that largely by trying to display what he regularly preached about a person's character with the fervor of a Southern evangelist.

This latest headline-grabbing incident affecting the lives and careers of so many at our nation's vaunted Naval Academy (of all places) reminded me that character and integrity matter so much in the way each of us chooses to live our brief lifetimes alongside each other.

As one who, despite efforts to live a life with character, admittedly has sometimes fallen short, the term refers to our individual ability to live according to our genuine selves rather than cloaked behind a facade often tainted by deception and insincere virtue signaling.

Most of us know those whose calculated facade doesn't always match their honest beliefs often betrayed by their actions. These folks care more about being perceived at first blush as selfless or caring than about actually living with those vital qualities.

The character-deficient also easily put forth the impression of championing good acts, yet when push comes to shove and pressure arises, too often easily betray their authentic beliefs under pressure.

This seems to me an ideal description of hypocrisy.

There definitely exists a primary division between one's personality and character traits. Personalities describe one's appearances, while character traits define who they honestly are within their spirits.

I've read that when stakes are high or one's ability to pretend crumbles, their character always will win, either good or bad, and their true selves will emerge.

Possessing character is also equated with acting honorably even if no one is watching. Will you still do what your heart and mind tell you is the right thing? Clearly, the midshipmen at the Naval Academy failed.

And if you or I were in charge at Annapolis, what choice would we have to deal with such extensive cheating while remaining true to your character?

I haven't heard other adults promoting the need for character and integrity in recent decades. How about you, valued readers?

From all I've observed on the national stage for about two decades now, I don't see much of either trait being practiced in D.C. or elsewhere by those who so readily and conveniently describe themselves--despite endless hypocrisies--as "public servants."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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