The emphasis in colleges and universities these days is on learning math, science and computer skills that will equip graduates to face the challenges of an increasingly technocratic society.
But the question is, will these newly-acquired skills and tools be used in the service of advancing the goals of the nation as a historic beacon of responsible democracy and visionary leadership for much of the world, or will we devolve further into a collection of separate warring regions with no common moral compass?
A sub-question is whether ethical behavior should play a role in this process. More about that later.
A principle driving force in large segments of today’s culture seems to be the acquisition of greater riches rather than the promotion of good government, social responsibility and constructive relations between the public and private sectors.
We are devising ways to communicate data and knowledge faster than the speed of sound and terms such as the Internet, Google glasses and “cloud” technology, which were not a part of the daily glossary even 20 years ago, have become common-place.
But is the information we are amassing and sharing — some of which is intruding on our privacy — improving the quality of our lives or merely altering the nature of our dealings with one another as well as among nations?
Educational curricula are in danger of becoming obsolescent for institutions that cannot adapt to the demands of a changing world which rewards business and financial success ahead of public service. The upshot is graduates well prepared to manage companies but less equipped to mediate international disputes and run governments.
The result is an age in which accomplishment is being judged, not so much by the ingenuity of an invention, but by the financial bonanza it yields for its creators and those eager to cash in on the largesse.
Understanding how mergers and acquisitions work and glorying in the wonders of the latest software applications is important. However, in the perilous world confronting us, there are other subjects to be learned if the future custodians of our nation’s security and prosperity can be entrusted to manage its affairs.
Last year’s hit movies “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” bring into stark relief the glorification of material excess as a bedrock tenet of American capitalism.
But this is nothing new.
Going back over 100 years to the turn of the last century, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was waging war against the railroad and oil barons who amassed great fortunes with minimal regulatory scrutiny.
Today, some of the banks and financial houses are doing a reasonably good imitation. There is, however, one deviation.
Whereas until very recently, highest net worth lie in real property holdings, now the arrow points to the high-tech companies — Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon — as leading the list. Intellectual capital has replaced real property as the high priest of corporate asset accumulation.
So now back to the ethics issue.
What Roosevelt and every reform-minded crusader since then has grappled with is the corrupting influence of money in both business and politics, which in many cases leads to blatantly unethical behavior.
Most businesses try to conduct themselves responsibly. But few could argue that it was not bad actors on Wall Street — and very powerful ones —which led to the financial collapse of 2008.
The suspension of three California state senators, lawmakers who face charges such as public corruption, bribery, gun-trafficking and other felonies, goes well beyond ethical misconduct.
One impact of the Supreme Court’s regrettable Citizens United ruling in 2010, which eliminated corporate contribution limits in federal campaigns, is that it encourages pay-to-play politics.
It has been proposed that every elected official and candidate receive mandatory ethics training. Perhaps this should be added to the college curriculums.
Richard Rubin of Strawberry writes about political issues and is president of a public affairs management firm. His email is email@example.com. His blog is at www.thepoliticalstage.com.