Jonah Goldberg

"Character is what you do when no one is watching."

It's a bit of a trite saying, attributed to coaches, motivational speakers and fortune cookie writers (by the way, whose idea was it to replace fortune cookie predictions with treacly aphorisms from the "Successories" reject pile?).

Still, the expression's popularity illustrates the power of the idea behind it. Character is what you do when the only controlling authority is your conscience.

Because young people do not yet have fully formed characters, they often need incentives beyond exhortations to do the right thing. That's one reason most parents reward good behavior and punish bad behavior -- to create real-world consequences for poor decisions, and thus train the habits of the heart.

Schools do the same thing. When I was a kid, one of the chief tools in this regard was your "permanent record." You don't want to get caught cheating, running in the halls, cutting class, drinking beer, etc., because it might go down on your permanent record, teachers would warn.

One of the great epiphanies in life is that your permanent record is not some bulging binder kept under lock and key like some archive in East Germany. But the threat that keepers of your permanent record were watching you -- bureaucratic Santas determining if you were naughty or nice -- had its uses. I'm sure it still does.

But another useful lesson in life is that jerks can avoid the scrutiny of the permanent record-keepers while still being jerks.

That's one reason I was happy to hear that college administrators have taken to perusing the social media habits of applicants. A Kaplan survey of top colleges, as compiled by U.S. News and World Report (once a news organization that did college rankings, now a college ranking service that occasionally dabbles in news), found that about a third of admissions officers at elite schools poke around on Facebook and other sites to check out what applicants are really like.

But teenagers in the past learned how to have a good time while avoiding embarrassing entries in the permanent record. And they'll figure it out again.

"Sure, the scrutiny may make them better at hiding what they don't want adults to see," writes Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University. "It will produce the same hype and earnestness we get in personal essays and resumes in the application packet.

"Yet," Bauerlein asks, "which is worse: social media that inflates the intellectual and moral credentials of the user and makes them more careful; or social media that reinforces the adolescent user's adolescence?"


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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