Article for Chronicle of Higher Education Opinion

What Will We Tell the Children?

By Annabel Beerel, MBA, Ph. D.

Where We Are

It is barely eighty years since the Great Depression, and here we stand yet again at the brink of another economic abyss. What have we learned other than that pride, invariably precedes a fall. And what a “fall” it has been! The “fall” of 2008 will go down in all history books as one of global economic implosion.

So, what will we tell the children? How will we explain that we do not really understand the systemic nature of capitalism? What excuses can we provide for ignoring the warning signals of the man we love to hate, Karl Marx? Marx argued relentlessly that unfettered capitalism (the U.S. laissez-faire, deregulated kind), requires continuous growth to survive. Eventually, he claimed, it would feed on itself and implode. Add to this freedom of the financial markets to pursue returns across any borders regardless of real as opposed to paper trade taking place, and implosion is guaranteed.

How will we explain to the children that we have all participated in creating this illusion of limitless wealth? The American Dream is a wonderful idea and provides creativity, optimism and hope. Realism reminds us that not everyone will strike it reach. However, we have ignored any signs of gravity or limits. We have wanted those soaring 401k plans, spacious homes, cars, TVs, gadgets, holidays and unchecked consumer opportunities. Now the bill has arrived. And it is a BIG one. And who will pay? Our children! What will we tell them?

Where We Stand

Well, university students are young adults and not necessarily seen as children – but what will we tell them? How will we explain this financial mess we have got ourselves into? In 80 years since the Great Depression, we do not seem to have learned much other than yet again history repeats itself.

As educators, what insight and guidance can we give the future leaders and shapers of our country? Not only how can we explain what has occurred, but even more importantly, what insights can we give them to reduce the risk that they might be caught up in similar economic disasters in the future?

The media and the press are already wringing our public hands about how bad it is and what went wrong. We can talk until the cows come home about what might have been avoided. We can add our tar and feathered outrage to the scapegoating that is going on and will continue for some time. But what will we tell the children? How can we help them now they are dragged into this mess and they are going to pay dearly for the bailout for many years to come?

As an Educator, and a Business Ethics Professor I certainly do not claim to have the answers. I am certainly also part of the system. And that is the place to begin. The system. We have a responsibility to help our students understand the systemic nature of capitalism and ethics. It is essential that at this time we explain to our students what has happened and why and how. It behooves us to explore with them the temptations of human nature and to help them understand that the sooner they can find their moral courage to counteract the pressure of systems, the greater determination they will have over their own lives.

Hundreds of thousands of people are going to be affected by this financial fallout, and many of those are going to lose their jobs. Young people are particularly vulnerable. The graduates of 2009 are facing a bleak window when it comes to job opportunities. Even so, students must be made aware of the fact that no job in the short term is better than a job with a corrupt organization headed by corrupt leadership. This is of course a hard pill to swallow. Money in the hand frequently trumps ethical ideals.

As educators we have an obligation to explain and educate our students about what is going on. We need to take an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding the systemic nature of the problem. Every discipline; be it mathematics, computer science, sports management, history, English literature, accounting, Chinese and graphic design, all have to include discussions on ethics as an inherent living question within that discipline.

Critical lessons for students need to include discussions on the pursuit of character. They need to know why it is important to stand for principles of honesty, respect, responsibility, care and justice. They need support to find their inner strength and authority so that they are not hoodwinked into handing over their moral agency to others, as we did.

They need education into the coercive power of systems and the impact of the group mind to mislead us into many things, one of which is “après moi la deluge!” Students need to understand that if they do not join a company that has proven sound communal values and integrity they are the ones to lose. They also need to grasp that wherever there are no limits, there is no ethics, and therein lies the slippery slope.

Finally we need to impress on our students the importance of moral courage. As Pericles taught us happiness depends on freedom, and the secret of freedom is a brave heart. Sadly, we are back to telling our children “do as we have learned and not as we have done.” Humility will do none of us any harm, but denying our students and our children the devotion and attention to strengthen their moral courage will!

Annabel Beerel, MBA, Ph.D.
Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics
Southern New Hampshire University
November 4, 2008

HCS readers are invited to view other articles about SNHU or business ethics at our extensive, permanent archives under the Business Ethics section at the URL or the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Southern New Hampshire University at

The purpose of the disguished chair in ethics is to promote and enhance students and community members awareness of ethics in personal and professional settings through teaching, community lectures and conferences. These events will foster understanding and assist in the application of lessons taught by current and classical ethicists to 21st-century settings.The chair serves as the cornerstone for an integrated university program in business ethics that encompasses the undergraduate and graduate levels. For more information about these events or about the ethics chair, contact Jane Yerrington at SNHU (603-668-2211 x2488) or visit the webpages of the ethics chair at

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