Wednesday, November 30, 2011

173. Get bothered; break social contract

The documentary "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk" details many of the things that most people are concerned about in regards to higher education today-student loans, emphasis on sports, cheating, drinking and grade inflation. The documentary offers a nice diversity of perspectives, such as contrasting small colleges with large universities. It follows the paths of several students, some of whom succeed and others who do not.

There is incredible diversity in higher education. Some students are well prepared; others are in over their heads. Some universities offer small classes and personal attention; others allow students to get lost in large lecture halls. Some university professors are concerned with tenure and research; others are working as adjunct faculty at a couple of universities. Some students work full time jobs and study incredibly hard; others are there on their parent's dime and spend their time partying and doing just enough to get by.

There were some overarching concerns expressed in the documentary. One concern was the attention to fundraising, sports and student retention-as a business perspective. Colleges are competing for students and are spending a lot of money on sport complexes, student centers and apartment-like dorms. Another concern was the disparity in effort and expectations. In the documentary it was portrayed as a social contract: "You don't bother me and I won't bother you." It was a perspective that hit home-and it reaches beyond the colleges and into society.

There are many issues inherent in the social contract that says, "Don't bother me and I won't bother you." It is contract that encourages "looking the other way," "ignorance is bliss," "don't judge me," and "mind your own business." School administrators and commentators were troubled with, "a culture that expects little," and that hardworking students were often rewarded with the same degree as those that just got by. In society we witness, among other things, immorality, irresponsibility and hypocrisy--in which whistleblowers, or other informed parties, are paralyzed in conflict, indecision and self-interest.

Unfortunately this social contract eventually crumbles-as we saw at Penn State, the Catholic Church, the Iraq war, with the tobacco companies, in government and, of course, on Wall Street. In each of these cases, abuses and corruption were allowed to continue because nobody was strong enough, early enough, to speak out. We have runaway institutions, in which sports or religion or government or corporations are too big to be held accountable. The result is often a cover-up until it reaches the tipping point, upon which it explodes and people ask, "How did that happen?"

When this contract does crumble, it is often "safety in numbers"--when several people are willing to come forward. The contract may also be challenged when movements are formed such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

The truth is, in many instances, we would rather not know-or at the least, we would like to justify that it is not worth the fight. And, at the same time, we do not want people in our business. People do not want the morality of their actions challenged, their beliefs tested, or their ethical decisions confronted. We have developed social norms that take politics, religion and money off the table-we just do not discuss those things.

But maybe we need to sometimes break this social contract and be bothered. Whether it is industries and institutions or colleges and neighbors-maybe we need to speak up. Obviously there needs to be discretion-but, at the same time, there are often families and lives at stake. We need to look out for each other and not be so willing to pretend that the things we know are happening--are not. It is difficult and all of us have probably weighed the consequences when we have witnessed injustice--whether it is ruining a relationship or risking our jobs. However, we should not live our lives in the background--happy to go with the flow as long as we get the things we want, or because we can hide behind a legal obligation. Maybe we need to be bothered to develop a new social contract.

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