John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How About A Curriculum for An Antidote to Societal Pursuit of Greed and Selfishness

John Gardner
President

I write this posting in what we all hope are the waning days of the Congressional/Presidential debate over how to address the raising of the US debt ceiling. While any interested citizens have had ample opportunity before this latest exercise of brinksmanship to observe the power of rationalized gross selfishness and greed, these past few weeks have really laid these values out for all to see, and for many to shake their heads at.
In my whole adult life following the politics of our great nation I don’t think I have ever seen such stubborn adherence to an ideology that rationalizes avoiding having to ask the rich and the fortunate to contribute more to their opposites. This is one of the grandest political values clarification exercises I have ever observed. And its implications really frighten me for the future of our country.

Last fall my wife and I took a six day cruise on a barge in France. We were serendipitously booked on this craft with two other couples—a wealthy medical practitioner and a hedge fund manager, and their well educated spouses. They were literate, cultured, tolerant, extremely well travelled, hard working, highly successful, and from a very affluent and sophisticated suburb in northern New Jersey. We saw life in many of the same ways except they absolutely detested our newest American President. Why? Very simple. He wanted to increase their taxes. And for these people, how going from a 35 to a 39% marginal tax rate would change their life style one bit was beyond my capacity to rationally comprehend.

In 2000, during that Presidential election campaign, when the press  reported that Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney had earned approximately $20,000,000 during the four prior years as CEO of Haliburton Corp, and during same period had reported less than 4% of his income for charitable deductions—this was a moment of truth for my wife and me. Mr. Cheney was asked about this appallingly low level of personal philanthropy and told the press that “my family is my favorite charity”. My wife’s and my epiphany was that we could certainly do far better than 4% on our much, much smaller incomes, and we resolved to do so and we have done so.

As I think about what I would like us to do for our entering college students this fall, I would like to have them experience a “lived curriculum”—and an explicit one, not what has been called a “hidden curriculum” that might result in producing college graduates who would be less selfish than so many we are hearing in the media who are so strongly opposed to increasing taxes on the wealthiest of our citizens. What kind of experiences out of class would we provide for students that might motivate them,  no matter how successful they became  materially, to make a lifetime commitment to pay a fair share of their success for the greater good of the country.

I guess I am asking how do you teach unselfishness? How do you teach a culture that is counter to the culture of greed? If it is anything we have seen since the financial meltdown in 2008, it is the power of greed—and greed as practiced by some very, very well (college) educated bankers, brokers, investors, lawyers, who have wreaked such havoc on the welfare of the whole society.

As the evidence mounts of the correlation between de-regulation of the financial industry, and the growth of inequality, and the increasing disproportionate benefits being accorded the rich, how can we possibly get our students to aspire to being less selfish, less greedy. I believe we could teach for these outcomes if we really wanted to.

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