Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A tale of two cities

Last year at this time, I was teaching a small class of journalism students in Zaqatala, a small and beautiful city in Azerbaijan that is located in the mountains, not far the borders with Russia and Georgia. Now, I am teaching university classes in in a small and pretty city in the mountains of North Carolina, USA. I teach two subjects: research methods & ethics.

Teaching has its moments that are interesting, frustrating, rewarding and boring. I also find that the activity can be disturbing. For example, several years ago I was teaching at a different university when the Bush Administration's policy of torturing suspected terrorists was completely operational. I was teaching a class on politics, so perhaps the subject wasn't directly relevant, but I brought it up anyway. I was appalled that no one in the class would condemn this policy. I was teaching a class of young people who were completely prepared to acquiesce with an official policy of torture, even if this meant that innocent people were tortured. The mantra "9/11. 9/11, 9/11" had its desired effect.

This last week, I described some hypothetical situations for my class on ethics. The class is really about ethics in communication, but we are just getting started, so I am talking more generally about ethics. I posed the question: If a cashier mistakenly gave you an extra $50 in change, would you return it?

I wasn't surprised that not everyone would, but I thought it was interesting how the students who planned to keep the money rationalized their decision. They reasoned that if the cashier made a mistake, then it is the cashier's fault and so the cashier deserves to suffer.

The rationale and the attitude was so wonderfully American. If you are poor, you deserve to be poor. In this understanding, America is not the land of opportunity; it is the land of survival of the fittest. You deserve all the loot that you can get, and if you don't have loot, you don't deserve it.

I note that not all the students opted to keep the money, and some said they would return the money, even after I changed the conditions to make keeping the money more attractive and returning it more difficult.

Nonetheless, I could not help thinking about the change in attitude and locales - my sweet and motivated students in Zaqatala, who write me still and were so grateful for the brief time I spent in their mountain city. And my American students, who possess so much more material wealth but who may be much poorer in some other ways.