Globalization in the Classroom: Tensions over Raising Ethical Questions in a Complex Subject

By LaReau, Renee | National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Globalization in the Classroom: Tensions over Raising Ethical Questions in a Complex Subject


LaReau, Renee, National Catholic Reporter


Fairfield (Conn.) University communications scholar Robbin Crabtree wants her students to feel pain. Yes, that's right. Pain. In her undergraduate course titled "Globalization, Media and Culture," Crabtree explores communication with an international focus, analyzing the digital divide from the perspective of women in developing Asian nations, exploring traditions in African cinema, and describing the cultural risks of the increasing conglomeration of American media. "When you study this stuff it should hurt," Crabtree tells her students. "It should hurt your head intellectually, and it should break your heart."

For Crabtree, a course covering the globalization of media means asking tough ethical questions about the information gap between rich and poor nations. "You must look at it from the perspective of those who are most marginalized," she said.

Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives at the University of Dayton in Ohio, agrees. "You have to be aware of how globalization is perceived in other parts of the world," Zukowski said. "You can say we're all working so we can become one, but for some nations that is a form of cultural oppression."

Many scholars in Catholic college and university classrooms, like Crabtree and Zukowski, are willing to examine globalization through the lens of justice. Still, the sheer magnitude of the topic, divergent views of professors' ethical responsibilities, and a clash between Catholic social teaching and economic theory result in an uneven handling of some of the critical questions related to globalization: Are free markets fair markets? Does globalization mean that everyone on the planet will eventually live in a McWorld? Are developing nations being exploited for the economic gains of others? Whether these questions are being asked varies not only from campus to campus, but from classroom to classroom.

Crabtree witnessed this unevenness firsthand in a comment from one of the students in her course. "This student, who was a marketing major, said to me: 'I've taken 13 business classes, and this is the first time I've heard any of this. We've never talked about labor, environment or the Third World.' I was just shocked," Crabtree said. "It could be the luck of the draw because I know faculty who do talk about these things, but I had not looked at the business environment in general."

For Crabtree, who is not Catholic and has "had no Catholic education whatsoever," looking at globalization without the lens of justice or a Jesuit perspective is unimaginable. "I can't imagine an argument against discussing the ethical dimensions of anything under any circumstances, let alone in the context of higher education in a democracy, and at a Jesuit university at that," she said.

'A work in progress'

Holy Cross Fr. Oliver Williams, associate professor of management and academic director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business at the University of Notre Dame, acknowledges that for business faculty, establishing a comfort level with ethical questions can be a challenge. "It's a work in progress," he said. "There are some who are naturally interested, and they are fairly good at it, but there are some, many in finance or accountancy who are experts in their field, who are not comfortable raising issues in the classroom of something they are not experts in."

Patrick Murphy, professor of marketing at Notre Dame and director of the university's Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, agrees that a lack of familiarity with the vocabulary of ethics and time management challenges are obstacles to raising justice-related questions in business schools. "Time and comfort level are the two primary impediments," Murphy said. "You use words like utilitarianism or virtue ethics, and they are foreign terms to a number of business faculty. For some people there is a tension. …

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