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Values: upside down you are turning me – Column

What are values, and who ought to teach them? This question may turn into the centerpiece of the 1996 presidential election. Certainly the term “values” is thrown around like a misplaced trump card in a bad bid whist game — used arrogantly, mistakenly, in poor taste and at the wrong time.

Witness Newt Gingrich and the way he would blame Democrats and their “values” for everything from seismic shakes to the murder of Susan Smith’s children. It takes a special kind of myopia to suggest that liberal values caused a woman to kill her children and then blame it on an African-American man. That this woman was the stepdaughter of one of South Carolina’s most prominent Republicans compounds the irony that Newt would blame her behavior on “liberal values.”

That wasn’t the first time Gingrich misspoke and it won’t be the last. On another occasion, he injected politics into a discussion of a heinous crime, insisting that somehow Democrats were to blame for the murder of a pregnant woman so that the father could claim his child. Confusing? Of course, but not as confounding as Newt’s comments. The family of the murdered woman shunned Newt’s notion that politics had anything to do with the awful murder, but meanwhile the statement was never repudiated by the House speaker. With all his talk of values, the speaker was silenced by his own bout with shaky ethics.

It is effortless to make fun of Speaker Gingrich and his values hypocrisy, but it makes some sense to look at the way the concept of values has become politicized. Can’t we agree on terms like “truth,” “honor,” “honesty” and “integrity”? How can the members of one political party assert an exclusive franchise on that which is good? How do others cede the moral ground so easily to them? Honor and integrity know no party, but the Republicans have so clearly won the rhetorical battle that their ownership of lofty terms is automatically conceded. So when they speak of “fairness” or “responsibility,” their words suggest that they are proposing something exemplary. When they slur “entitlement,” there is someone who can already see people (not corporations) with their hands out.

Rhetorical Seepage

In some ways this is a political issue, but it seeps into the educational arena when formal programs on business ethics are organized. In one classroom, business students are being taught that profit is king. In another, they are being gingerly introduced to ethics. In one setting, students are being told how to circumvent regulations to save the environment. In another setting, students may be told about the sanctity of the environment.

There are ethical contradictions in some of the formulas that are used to weigh the consequences of some actions. The 104th Congress has debated occupational safety and health laws, asking how much an individual’s limbs are worth, how many fractions of a rodent’s carcass are allowable in manufactured food, how much polluters should pay for the harm they do to the nation’s rivers. Implicit here is the notion that there is a price for everything — life, limb, tainted food. It seems incongruent that some of the very drum majors for ethics and values are also the deal-cutters who would set a price on everything.

By talking values instead of economics, they hide behind words like “decency” without pondering how indecent it is to pay hard-working people as little as $4.25 per hour, how indecent it is to close manufacturing plants in people’s faces, how indecent it is to post soaring profits while laying workers off at the same time. It is as if there are two sets of values, one for people at the top, the other at the bottom. It is amusing to watch people who don’t work preach to others about hard work, to watch members of Congress cut costs by furloughing their cafeteria workers during congressional breaks while collecting their full salaries during these same breaks.

Social vs. Economic

In his recent book, “Values Matter Most,” pundit Ben Wattenberg says that the 1996 election boils down to values as perceived by the electorate. Fie pinpoints those areas where Americans most frequently differ — on issues like crime, welfare, affirmative action. While I take the opposite position from Wattenberg on most issues, my bigger objection is his assertion that these differences boil down to a set of universal values that must be articulated by a national leader.

Wattenberg would have us focus on social values, not economic values, on out-of-wedlock births, not the paucity of post-industrial jobs. I say we must focus on our nation’s economic values, in politics and in education.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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