The Struggle to Make Sense of Moral Relativism at an Elite School

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My students’ apathetic response to a clip from the movie “The Corporation” about a day trader’s enthusiastic response to the devastation of 911 and the invasion of Iraq in 1991 prompted inner soul searching about the efficacy of teaching elite international school students.

Most of my blog entries aim to be neat and tidy: define a problem and provide a pedagogical solution that raises students to a higher state of consciousness. Perhaps optimistic to a fault. Well, not this one. What happened to me last week penetrated beneath my normal sanguine assumptions and defenses, causing me to question the efficacy of teaching at an elite private institution.

On Monday I was teaching a class in my Spiritual Explorations 11 class about cleaning up our inner lives. I introduced the concept of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in other people’s pain. We all do it, we came to admit, whether it’s watching “American’s Funniest Home Videos,” gloating when a sibling gets in trouble at home, or secretly feeling relief when you score better than a close friend on an exam.

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A shot of 911 during the documentary “The Corporation”

Then I showed a particularly dramatic Image result for the corporation documentaryscene (which can be seen here) of schadenfreude from the 2003 documentary, “The Corporation,” in which a New York day trader discusses how on 911 every one of his colleagues’ first thought when the planes hit the World Trade towers was, “How much is gold going up?! All of our clients are in gold!” He said the same thing about the invasion of Iraq in 1991, “We couldn’t wait for the bombs to start falling on Saddam Hussein. The price of oil went from $10 dollars a barrel to $42 for Christ’s sake.” This 2-minute clip moves dramatically from a talking head of the day-trader to scenes from 911, Iraq, body bags and burning oil wells, supported in the latter half by poignant, pensive accompanying music.

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“My God, gold must be exploding!” he exclaims in response to the events of 911.

He concludes with a final, pointed take-away, “In devastation there is opportunity,” which is dramatically punctuated with a take-it-or-leave it facial expression.

Turning to the class, I beamed up two questions:

  1. Pick one word to describe this man’s attitude: honest, opportunistic, selfish, immoral, disgusting, business-like?
  2. Would you be able to live with this kind of moral dilemma in your future occupation?

I let the students talk in small groups and then surveyed the class with a raise of hands. The results came in: about half the students said the day trader was “honest” and other half said “business-like.” Not one student indicated a hint of moral disapproval, let alone an outright condemnation of this man’s attitude.

I was stunned….what….? how….? I didn’t even dare ask the second question, for I knew the answer already. I didn’t know what to do or say. I was so taken aback by the 100% morally neutral response that I could not summon the wherewithal to transform my shock into a “teachable moment” by asking some clever follow-up question.  After one unusually long pause, I was able to complete the last few minutes without registering my utter dismay.

Mercifully, the bell sounded; I was glad to escape without succumbing to an emotionally-driven response to their stunning and uncomprehendable apathy.

Gutted, I retreated to a quiet corner during my free period to recover, writing a distraught note to a colleague about how alien I felt trying to teach these students – a few of whom at least I knew did have soft consciences but voted for “honest” or “business-like” anyway. How could they en masses not even raise a hand to register critique of something I considered totally beyond the pale?!

I managed to get through my classes the rest of the day, and the energy for teaching did somehow return. Slowly through the week I shared my dismay with several students and colleagues, some of whom were equally shocked, which brought some comfort.

Then on Friday as one of my AP Research students who wants to develop a research study on the connection between literature and empathy presented her initial proposal, I made an impromptu decision to share with my class of seven students the video of the day trader, the choices I presented to the kids, and my deep concerns about their relativism. They too were visibly disturbed by the video. I asked how they would describe their response to the video: shocked, sad, disturbed. My dashed faith in the humanity of my students was granted a reprieve.

Now a week later I offer some tentative reflections:

  1. Students by and large of this generation find it very difficult to condemn anyone in a public setting in terms that smack of moralism. Relativism reigns.
  2. It’s asking a lot of students who come from elite backgrounds, whose main task is to replace their parents at the top of the food chain, to criticize someone for being opportunistic in a business-infused socio-economic milieu.
  3. These observations seem to support the proposal made by Pasternak (1998), who described the value system of international school students as being composed of three aspects:
  • The informal international value system is a world of affluence, mobility, and consumption, with its emphasis on fulfilling the personal desires of students.
  • The home values system, which is entirely dependent on the moral fiber of the parents, is often times supportive of maintaining privilege through educational achievement, marshalling all of their resources and connections to do so.
  • This leaves the school value system as the only systemic challenge to wealthy students’ elite assumptions.
  1. By contrast, I believe that if I showed this video to poor local students that my students and I have taught in India, they would immediately demonstrate far more empathy than my students because they are closer to suffering and can relate more easily.
  2. On the other hand, my small number of older, more mature and close-knit AP research kids were willing to register their ethical concerns more readily.
  3. Perhaps it’s the power of the situation: a larger, general education religion class vs a small research class where most of the students have chosen year-long projects that have something of an ethical component in that they hope their investigations in the end benefit society in some manner.
  4. My best guess, then, is that the default setting of my privileged students is pro-business with few moral qualms. What hope is there for the world if our most privileged students can brush off the suffering of ordinary people who are taken advantage of at the hands of business elites?
  5. This default setting will remain unless they enter into an ethical community that challenges them to re-think their live-and-let-live worldviews and consider the plight of those outside their social class. Humanities I in Action creates such a class community.
  6. It does seem to call into question our school’s naïve raison d’être – if we can change the elite, we can have far greater positive impact on society than influencing other lower echelons of the community.
  7. The rejoinder is always that we are planting seeds that come to fruition in years to come. There is no way to refute such a common sense, but undemonstrated claim, but I have to admit that last week I felt I really should be teaching these lessons to a more receptive, sensitized, and deserving clientele.

Another week begins and I have regained my energy for the tasks ahead. But I won’t forget this incident. It has raised one of Mezirow’s ‘disorienting dilemmas’ for me that I hope to gain some greater insight into in the months to come. I welcome reader responses.

Reference

Pasternak, M. (1998). Is international education a pipe dream? A question of values.  In M. Hayden & J. Thompson (Eds.), International Education (pp. 253-275). London, England: Kogan Page.

Student Response to Suffering (an earlier class this semester)

When you think of suffering you have seen or experienced, what comes to mind?

My family is from India, so whenever I’m there, I see lots of impoverished people, living on the streets, struggling to survive.

How did you cope with that suffering?

I don’t know how exactly to say I coped with it because at the end of the day the problem was someone else’s and I didn’t really do much to change it.

Did it impact your worldview? (About spirituality?)

I don’t really think so to be honest. I think that while it was another evidence of suffering in the world, I already know and have known that suffering and poverty exists and so it didn’t really have a huge impact on me. In terms of spirituality, I still don’t think it had an impact since as far as I’m concerned, everything good that’s happened to me (eg. my living situation and my life and family, and the fact that I don’t hold the same worries as the people I mentioned) was just luck of the draw and that’s all there was to it. Of course I wish the situation was better for those suffering in poverty, but it doesn’t change what I think in terms of whether or not something helped me along the way.

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Teaching the centrality of love in Ambur, Tamil Nadu, March, 2019

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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1 Response to The Struggle to Make Sense of Moral Relativism at an Elite School

  1. While I agree with your cultural analysis and am also frequently disturbed by students’ extreme moral relativism in instances of clear injustice (and unfortunately with less prudence and self-discipline regarding my own emotional response), I think it’s important to consider the priming context for the video. If students had, for instance, been meditating, praying, or caring for orphans in the moments preceding the clip, the response may have been different. Instead, they were watching gag videos that primed them for laughing at the folly of others. I understand the pedagogical link through schadenfreude, but those “America’s Funny Home Videos” don’t prime for empathy. I think that the “honest” and “business-like” responses reveal a deep and unsettling truth about the values system in which elite international students are raised, but I also think that the genuine compassion that we often see from many students at other times may have come out this time as well with a different priming context. Lest this assuage your dilemma, however, I’d also observe that these students, like many of us, are very adept at “code-switching”. Context is king and even the most compassionate student on a service trip can become a ruthless and cut-throat competitor when the switch flips to the Hunger Games-style academic environment and business they often perceive themselves to be part of.

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