Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

The Real Business of America: Ethics and New Economic Realities


H. Michael Hartoonian and
Richard Van Scotter

Character makes a person good and makes that person do good work. —Aristotle

Anyone who spends much time in a high school hallway probably won’t find it hard to discern the “pecking order” that defines the school environment. Likewise, those familiar with today’s secondary classrooms have likely perceived that the most common tool for motivating students is to place them in competition with each other. These phenomena—while hardly new—may be intensified in the modern cultural context, which serves up heavy doses of individualism and consumerism to the coming generation. Our teenagers, at least subconsciously, realize they will inherit a complex economic society bound together by only a fragile sense of community.

If they ever could, teachers can no longer close their classroom doors and hide behind the illusory safety of the lecture, textbook, or worksheet. Columbine, that high school just outside the city limits of Denver, has become a code word for explosive incivility, divisive social stratification, and the pernicious competition that permeates the habitat of even this nation’s most “privileged” schools. And, fair or not, society is placing much of the burden for solving its “Columbines” on the schools.

The social studies can play a pivotal role in helping students develop or re-enforce the qualities of character needed to create a civil and moral society within the school and, ultimately, within society at large. In fact, this was Horace Mann’s central message over 150 years ago when he described how the well-being of the republic is tied to the purposes of the public schools.1

This article begins with a look at the “new economic realities” facing our students as they prepare to enter adulthood at the turn of the millennium. It then suggests ways that we as educators can revive the perennial mission of the public schools by better connecting content and character in the teaching of the social studies.


The Emerging Global Economy

We live in a time between times—specifically, between two major economic epochs. The Industrial Age, which began in most Western nations roughly 150 years ago, is fast giving way to what might be called the Age of Electronic Communications. At least in the more wealthy first-world nations, we are moving inexorably into an economic era defined by lightening-speed communications, global production, and the movement of economic resources (particularly capital) across national boundaries to far-flung areas of the globe.

The economic era we now live in demands a new ethical imperative involving a synthesis of character and commerce. We have inherited a democratic republic whose guiding principles constitute a jewel of history. However, the twin pillars of the republic, democracy and capitalism, are now in a condition requiring intensive care. If we are to resuscitate the spirit of our republic, democracy and capitalism must go hand in hand with each other.

Global economic networks now link people, education, and markets in ways that move us far beyond neo-classical economic theory. Writing in Scotland in 1776, Adam Smith introduced the economic concepts of “the invisible hand” and “self-interest.” Today, there exists a great tension between those who advocate unfettered markets and those who believe that self-interest is not necessarily enlightened. The former argue that, left to itself, the market determines what constitutes good behavior. Paradoxically, Smith would likely be numbered among the latter, who hold that a free market cannot long exist unless individuals practice ethical behavior within it. If this is not the case, the market will cease to be free, and then it will cease to be.

Today’s employment demographics present a revealing perspective on the new economic landscape. Within the United States today, only about 1.2% of the workforce is engaged in agriculture and another 14% is employed in manufacturing. The remainder work in education, government, or the service economy with its multiple facets—including the electronic communications industry. Navigating this dynamic workplace requires understanding how fundamental economic trends are redefining work and changing our lives.

We hear concepts such as the “service economy” and “information workers,” and assume we know what these mean. Yet they can really only be understood within the context of global markets and currency exchanges now being driven by instant communications and new products of research and education.

For example, the price of raw commodities (e.g., crude oil, iron ore, and other natural resources) has been declining consistently over time. This may seem counterintuitive since the prices we pay for most products have historically been increasing. The apparent contradiction becomes less baffling when we understand that the higher costs of products (and services) can be attributed mostly to value added by knowledge. For example, the price we pay for a personal computer, compact disc, or pizza depends much less on the quantity of raw materials they contain than on the knowledge that went into making each item.

The most important forms of wealth today do not reside in farmlands, mines, forests, waterways, or even reservoirs of oil under the sea, but in the knowledge and techniques used to add substantive and aesthetic value to these raw commodities. Those who shape the future of our culture will create wealth by enhancing the capacities of people to employ their intelligence and imaginations—both as creators and as consumers. This they will do through the use of two powerful human resources that provide the engines for economic growth: the work ethic (embracing character) and knowledge (including technology).


The True Meaning of Wealth

We need to understand the creation of wealth in terms of a new economic paradigm that has as its core value personal integrity. That is, genuine wealth must be viewed not only in material terms, but as involving intellectual, ethical, and political dimensions. The sane society sees the individual not merely as “economic man,” but more variously, as the citizen of multiple social groupings that include the family, school, workplace, civic organization, religious faith, community, state, and nation.

The emerging economic landscape brings new meaning and importance to an old precept: the work ethic. Traditionally, it has stood for personal characteristics associated with “hard work,” such as reliability, punctuality, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Now, more than ever, this ethic must be applied to every aspect of the workplace itself. And the good workplace will be one in which people practice cooperative relationships and have the opportunity to pursue meaningful vocations.

Relationships in the workplace—which are increasingly electronic as well as face-to-face—are becoming more complex. Yet, although the workplace often obscures this, we are all profoundly dependent on the efforts of others. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues point out, “[people] see this in private life, [which] is one reason the family is still so important.”2 When work has a moral context, we understand that it is something we do together and for each other, and such “work that is challenging and cooperative seems to fulfill a deep human need.”3

People work best when they view their efforts as a vocation (from the Latin for “voice” or “calling”). The ethical workplace is one in which everyone can find meaning in their labor because it calls on their passions and beliefs, taps their abilities, and accords with their notions of self-respect. In the ethical workplace, people see their work as a calling and acknowledge the reciprocal duty of respecting the work of others.

Knowledge, when combined with ethical behavior, enhances our capacity not only to create good products or services, but to address moral issues and build strong communities. To follow one’s calling should embrace striving to construct a better community and world. In the end, there can be no private wealth (personal excellence) without common wealth (public excellence, or infrastructure). Thus, the process of creating genuine wealth calls for a confluence of knowledge and ethical behavior as the necessary conditions for a free economy and a true democratic republic.4


The Content of Character

Helping students to build character and confront moral issues is the work of all members of the school community. As Kathy Simon of the Coalition of Essential Schools observes, we can build courses and a school culture that “push students to consider what it means to live a good, meaningful life, to promote justice, (and) to contribute to the well-being of society,” albeit it that “in this climate of covering content, this isn’t easy.”5

Teachers, and especially those in the social studies, can develop students who possess the qualities of nascent scholars, artisans, and citizens.6 They can do so by connecting the content of character with the content of their academic disciplines at many points in the curriculum. The following are some suggested ways to help students reflect more deeply on the world they currently inhabit and the world they will one day inherit.


Acquiring Aesthetic Sensitivity

From one perspective, an aesthetic place–be it home, school, or office–has a sense of beauty and harmony, qualities that depend on factors such as design, light, color, music, plants, and the like, all working together to provide joy in being in a place.

But aesthetic quality and its corollary, aesthetic behavior, go beyond the immediate physical environment to consider the social structure, economic conditions, and cultural forces that surround us. As Bellah points out, fully attending to our environment is central to an authentic democracy, and when we give our full attention to it, “we are calling on all our resources of intelligence, feeling, and moral sensitivity.”7

The opposite of “aesthetic” is “anaesthetic,” meaning to be insensitive, unaware of, or numb to the surrounding physical and cultural environment. The person, school, business, or society that becomes precoccupied with the self-indulgent pursuit of narrow interests loses its capacity to make caring and critical judgements that affect the common good.

To develop their critical capacities, students can observe the school, the surrounding neighborhood, and the larger environment of their community. The teacher might ask:

> What evidence of physical beauty and harmony do you see?

> What care, consideration, tolerance, and acts of kindness do you see?

> What insensitivity, self-indulgence, anger, or indifference exist?

> Where do you see a sense of purpose and respect for learning?


Engaging in Discourse

Working together to understand conditions, analyze situations, and solve problems takes thoughtful and courageous discourse. Such conversations expose our experiences, opinions, and passions, and ultimately, our highest values and principles. Purposeful discourse helps students become loving critics of the family, class, school, organization, or community of which they are part. As students develop skills of listening to and respecting the views of others, their conversation will accordingly be marked by more discipline, honesty, civility, and clarity of thought.

To this end, the range of topics across the school curriculum is virtually endless. For example, the social studies class could consider such questions as:

> What does it mean to be a citizen?

> As people, in what do we believe?

> What is a community?

To relate science and society, students could discuss questions such as:

> What technological discoveries have had a major impact on the social world?

> Are there scientific discoveries that we probably should not pursue?

> Should the amount of money a person has make a difference in one’s health care?


Confronting Moral Questions

In the home, school, and workplace, we face ethical decisions and moral issues daily. The earlier questions on aesthetics and discourse obviously possess moral content. In fact, education above all else is a moral enterprise.

Addressing contentious issues is at the heart of teaching critical thinking. Unfortunately, as Simon remarks, the school climate these days is adverse to the serious exploration of anything potentially controversial and not easily tested.8 With the current focus on teaching students workplace skills as narrowly viewed, schools tend to overlook questions that go beyond this to consider the meaning of work to the individual and to society.

For example, the economics curriculum needs to address how society should create and distribute its wealth. Responding that the “invisible hand” of the market will answer this question, as some economists do, is both disingenuous and illiberal. Our students need to understand the hazards of overspecialization even as they acquire skills for specific work. Likewise, understanding mutual funds and calculating interest payments will not shelter future consumers from acquiring unnecessary objects and mounting debt. The curriculum in consumer education (or, financial literacy) should help our young people understand the intrusive forces in both merchandising and the larger culture that persuade them to buy.

The teacher might pose these questions:

> What care should we take of the environment?

> What are the most important influences in causing people to buy?

> What obligations does a firm have to the community as well as to stockholders?

> What obligations does the community have to the firm?


Acquiring Knowledge

One of the most important aspects of knowledge is how it is created from texts, people, and experiences and presented to others. The acquisition of knowledge requires the ability to develop and use narratives, models, charts, drama, and the arts to convey ideas and to check their validity. In attempting to find out what happened and why it happened, students should deal with such questions as:

> How can we best conceptualize this issue, topic, or event?

> What are the different ways that this narrative can be presented?

> Does the evidence support the interpretations?

> Is the explanation clear to different audiences?

As we help students to conceptualize, deal with causality, validate claims, and pursue a creative and ethical course of action, they will develop a fitness of mind placing them at an advantage in the new economy of the 21st century.


Realizing the Purpose of Education

In his book The End of Education, Neil Postman writes:

Without a fundamental reason, schooling does not work. For schools to make sense, the young, their parents, and teachers must have a god to serve, or even better, several gods. Without such, school is pointless.9

Unfortunately, as Postman explains, this essential metaphysical issue is typically upstaged by the engineering question, which focuses on how our children become educated. Although the question of means is hardly trivial, it doesn’t answer why we educate children or what is the ultimate purpose of schools. There are many right answers to how to teach, and to claim there is only one “is to trivialize learning, to reduce it to a mechanical skill.”10

This is largely what we have done in reducing the role of schools to brokers of information and dispensers of skills. As a result, educators hold an inferior place in our culture, and education has become a political football. Likewise, in turning over the nature of schooling to market forces and school choice programs, educators convey the message that they really don’t have a serious idea about the purpose of public schools.

Students today have access to more information and the power it engenders than at any previous time in history. However, this power is raw and almost overwhelming. Many parents and teachers indicate that they are afraid of their children, who are variously seen as more precocious and knowledgeable, but less civil and reflective, than previous generations. It is as if adults lack the courage to develop a generational relationship with the young, and have thereby abdicated their moral responsibility as mentor, ethical model, and judge. There is no greater joke or crueler hoax we can play on the young than to give them what they want.

If our democracy and economic system are to thrive, public schools must understand their primary purpose as being to transmit from one generation to the next our cultural DNA. This means conveying the intellectual, spiritual, and moral foundations of our democratic capitalist republic—a heritage that more than one observer has described as the most appealing idea the world has yet known. Alexis de Tocqueville referred to our great narrative as civic participation, while Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal called it the American Creed. As Postman explains, by creating the right kind of public, our schools strengthen the spiritual basis of this creed. “This is how Jefferson understood it, how Horace Mann understood it, how John Dewey understood it... In fact, there is no other way to understand it.”11

Whether we aim to or not, educators do create the public; the only question is what kind of public we create. By default, it appears the American public is becoming more and more a conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers; angry, soulless, directionless masses; and confused, indifferent citizens.12 When the public schools once again assume the central, powerful role envisioned by their early architects, our students will increasingly develop into the kinds of scholars, artisans, and citizens who possess the power to build both private and common wealth.



1. Lawrence Cremin, ed., The Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1957), 7-9, 12-15, 22.

2. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven N. Tipton, The Good Society (New York: Random House, 1991), 104-05.

3. Ibid., 106.

4. For further discussion, see Michael Hartoonian, “Education for Sale: What’s A Democratic Principle Worth?” Social Education 63, No. 4 (May/June 1999), 242-244.

5. Horace, A Publication of the Coalition of Essential Schools (Providence, RI: Author, January 1999), 4.

6. Michael Hartoonian and Richard Van Scotter, “School-to-Work: A Model for Learning a Living,” Phi Delta Kappan (April 1996), 557-559.

7. Bellah et. al, 254.

8. Horace, 4.

9. Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 4.

10. Ibid., 17.

11. Ibid., 18.

12. Ibid.


H. Michael Hartoonian is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He was NCSS president in 1995-96.

Richard Van Scotter is vice president/education of Junior Achievement, Inc. in Colorado Springs, CO.