James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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The 3 E’s: education, economics and ethics

Posted by James McPherson on December 4, 2008

The lead news today continues to be about a possible government bailout of the Big Three auto makers, but frankly this week I’m more concerned about the long-term costs of another impending disaster for the U.S. economy.

Unless we fix some serious problems with our educational system, we won’t have people smart enough to design the cars of the future, or with jobs good enough to be able to afford those cars. And unless we start to pay some attention to how ethics in government, business and elsewhere are being internalized by our children (who, as George W. Bush would say, “is learning,” inside the classroom and out), we won’t be able to trust anything made or sold by an American graduate, anyway.

Though I teach at a highly ranked institution that boasts the smartest and most ethical students I’ve ever worked with, this has been a troubling week for news related to higher education. Tuition costs continue to rise, to the point where a study reported in yesterday’s New York Times predicts that college education may soon be unaffordable for those from the middle class (or what little remains of it) and below. Harvard, the school whose graduates we all most resent while we wish our own kids could get in there, saw its endowment drop by 22 percent in the first four months of the school year.

Maybe they can steal the tuition money. Another survey released this week shows that most high school students cheat–and about a third say they have stolen something from a store within the past year. Less surprising, is that more than 80 percent of public school and private religious schools admit lying to their parents about “something significant,” which prompts me to suspect that at least 10 percent lied about lying.

More troubling is that more than 90 percent of students surveyed reported being satisfied with their personal ethics (they may lie, cheat and steal, but they’re OK with it), with 59 percent agreeing that “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”

And then there’s this bit of trash: A supposed journalism student writing for “The Daily Beast” about her “sugar daddy” relationship. which she euphemistically calls “maybe even the distant cousin of—dare I say it?—prostitution.” (Yes, you may call it what it is.) She does offer a bit of good news for the reeling auto industry: “And the company car I drive costs him around $700 a month for the lease and the insurance.” She writes–as if she knows–that when the relationship is over, “I will part with a lifelong friend [Yeah, right; I see him on future guest list for her future wedding], a great career, and a killer wardrobe.”

Part of her justification is that “truth be told, women have used their wiles and charms to get ahead for years.” Perhaps. Students have also cheated for years (and with that in mind, maybe this “journalism student” is just spinning a provocative tale), and Americans in various business and government sectors have been ignoring negative economic indicators for years.

But as Dr. Phil might say, were he treating the nation as a sobbing, overweight, somewhat dim TV “client”: “How’s that working for you?

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