Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Ethical vision in teaching and research

Max Kummerow
Department of Property Studies
Curtin University of Technology
Ethics formed the core of higher education during most of the past 2500 years. An ethical vision can motivate students by giving larger meaning to work in a particular discipline. An ethical vision provides one remedy to alienation that comes from narrower, more selfish perspectives. The German Historical School economists, and their intellectual descendants Richard Ely and James Graaskamp at the University of Wisconsin, succeeding in inspiring students with a larger sense of social purpose. Attention to what Ely called the "larger interests" of society and the future, as opposed to current emphasis on short term individual interests, is necessary if universities are to play their traditional roles as social conscience and innovator.


I had to good fortune to be educated by a man with a strong ethical vision, James Graaskamp, a real estate professor at the University of Wisconsin. His vision of our profession's role in helping to create a good and just society served to motivate both teaching and learning, as well as active involvement in social policy questions. My paper reports on this experience and recommends that all teaching should keep in mind the broader meaning and purposes of education and human life. The proposition is that an ethical vision, that is, ideas of how the world should be and how our work contributes to improving the world, energises and enhances teaching and learning.

Historical centrality of ethics in higher education

For over two thousand years, Chinese students studied the Confucian classics in preparation for the imperial examinations. Success in the examinations led to employment in the civil service, wealth, power, and opportunities for graft and corruption. The curriculum consisted largely of ethics and literature rather than technical know-how. The theory was that if a good man were put in charge, he could learn enough on the job to make good decisions, whereas if a person of technical expertise but bad character came to a position of power, his technical expertise would merely enable him to be a more efficient thief and the people would suffer. Similarly in the West, from the ancient Greeks to the 19th century, ethics was central to higher education. During much of this time, the Christian church controlled education. Moral issues were therefore considered crucial not only to outcomes during this life, but more importantly for all eternity. People worried about how to avoid sin so as to save their souls from damnation.

Given this centrality of ethical education for such a long time in both east and west, it is surprising how little consideration of ethics is found in our present day university courses. This despite the fact that ethical issues are at least as important to our welfare as ever, perhaps more so. The difference between living in heaven or hell on earth has to do largely with human choices. As technology gives greater control over the environment, choices become more important. Technology increases ability to control, manipulate, or destroy human life on the one hand, or to enhance and extend human life on the other. B.F. Skinner, the behaviourist, envisioned a utopia in which all social problems would be solved by social engineering whereby people would be conditioned or trained to avoid anti-social behaviour. Joseph Wood Krutch, a humanist and biologist, responded with the question "Who will condition the conditioners?"

Higher education's current ethical dilemma

Commercialisation of university research and education reflect growing concentration of economic power and the dominance of consumerism and technology in the surrounding culture. The dilemma for universities is how to balance playing their essential roles as social critic/social conscience, while putting their hands out for support to individuals, governments, and corporations motivated more by private than public concerns, more by short run gain than long term wisdom. If educators adopt the values of individualistic consumer societies what will motivate them to care about social costs and benefits as opposed to their own private outcomes? I am assuming here that one of the roles that have made universities such important institutions has been their ability to represent the public interest and to look ahead to the future. This often means critical comment on established institutions and interest groups.

My master's thesis in Sociology, a study of Brazil's educational system completed over twenty years ago, concluded that education systems are such important and central social institutions that they must reflect quite closely the society they are embedded in. This extends even to educational ideology. In Brazil, in the 1970s, educators sincerely believed in intellectual elites. At each stage in children's public school education, examinations culled out those whose inferior intellectual abilities made their education a poor investment for society. Significant percentages, about a third from memory, of poor children failed the exam after year one that would have qualified them to attend the second year of primary school. Only a very small percentage--perhaps one or two percent--of students passed exams qualifying them for public universities.

Yet, my friend's brother, son of a wealthy family, was able to obtain a university degree despite being literally insane. The hypocrisy of the Brazilian system came from the fact that at every stage rich people's children could attend private schools or take special exam preparation courses that much increased their odds of being admitted to higher levels. The educational ideology reflected the dominant social classes' view of themselves as not only an economic elite, but also an intellectual elite fully deserving their privileges.

While in Brazil, I saw a newspaper article about bodies of labour organisers found by the side of the road with police issue .38 special bullets in their brains, victims of police "death squads." We became friends with an extremely intelligent eight-year-old boy who had to leave school before completing year 3 to help support his family. This little boy lived in two-room mud brick shack in a squatter settlement. His mother died while we were there, probably due to lack of proper medical care. About 5,000 squatters, including our young friend, were about to be evicted from their homes by the police in order to preserve title claims of a man who owned land exceeding the area of Belgium. The workers in his plantations and sugar mills, we were told, were "como escravos," like slaves.

I went to dinner at the rich man's house. The site was at least 10 hectares in the middle of the city. The home included a private full-size movie theatre. The teenage children drove expensive imported cars. While we were at dinner, a bodyguard shot a stray dog on the grounds, so we would not be annoyed by its barking. Wuff, wuff, wuff, bang.....silence. The soup spoon paused on its way to my mouth for a moment. Then the bodyguard came back to keep an eye on the American dinner guests.

Much of the world is like that--extremes of wealth and poverty, upper classes with an ideology of class, family, or individual superiority. During a recent five-year period, the number of poor people in the world increased from 1 to 1.3 billion. Instead of aspiring to own a big house and a mercedes, it seems to me, we ought to be ashamed of seeking material wealth while other people's children are dying of hunger. Unfortunately, I am at least as selfish and unethical as the next person, so I've never been able to resolve this discomfort about the difference between the way the world is and the way it ought to be. The world's problems are so big, but each of us is so small. What is our responsibility and where does responsibility for others end? My mother jokes, quoting St. Paul, "Keep working til Jesus comes."

Even enlightened selfishness should be enough to motivate concern about public issues. It is clear by now that if much of the world is poor, competition will drive down wages and employment even in rich countries. If the air is polluted, rich and poor alike will breathe bad air. Global environmental problems such as overpopulation and depletion of natural resources affect us all. Political repression and instability elsewhere, threaten us because they threaten an interdependent global economy. Abraham Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand, America could not continue half slave and half free. When China arrests dissidents, our freedom is threatened. It's all connected.

The failures of ethics

Sadly, the Confucians and the Catholics both failed to maintain just societies through their ethical studies. The hypocrisy of reading and writing about harmony and justice while living in corrupt, heirarchical societies ruled essentially by force discredited the idea that studying ethics would ensure ethical behaviour. In fact, one can be an ethics expert and still act badly. The strong beliefs imposed by ethical systems such as the God religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) led to bloody conflicts. Fanatics who are too sure of their own righteousness seem to be the ones most likely to commit atrocities. After 30 years of war and whacking off king's heads, Protestants and Catholics in Britain began to look for something less ideological, more objective. They found science and deism. Reason was supposed to take over from emotion, evidence rather than faith as the basis for belief. Doubt rather than certainty.

One lesson from the failure of ethical systems may be that, as Marx pointed out, material circumstances are important. As Brecht put it in the Threepenny Opera, "If there is enough money, there is usually a happy ending." Money here really means the material circumstances of life--enough food, housing, medical care, etc. China a hundred years ago and Thailand much more recently contained people so poor they had to sell their daughters into prostitution to survive. Ethics may tell us how to share things around, but unless there is enough to share, relative abundance, it is likely that ethical systems will break down.

Ethical vision in teaching real estate

Graaskamp's ethical vision for real estate education had its roots in 19th century German universities. The so-called "German Historical School" of economists advocated reforms of German society based on moral values. Although an occasional professor saw the inside of a prison cell, many of these reforms were eventually adopted, perhaps because they were means of increasing overall welfare, including the welfare of the upper classes who controlled German society. University economists, motivated by ethical concerns, played a significant role in advocating the reforms that led to unification and industrialisation of Germany. An American economist named Richard T. Ely studied at Heidelberg during the 1870s with one of the Historical School economists. He returned to America an advocate of reforms to the "robber baron" capitalism that corrupted late 19th century American political institutions.

Most of the reforms advocated by the "Progressives" as their political party was called, were eventually enacted, to the great benefit of American society. Ely and company advocated such radical ideas as progressive income taxation, old age pensions, public education, legalising labour unions, unemployment insurance, regulation of monopolies, and so on. It was not capitalism that brought mass prosperity during the 20th century. Laissez faire markets had enriched only a few while creating mass poverty, amid periodic collapses like the depression of the 1930s. And certainly communism did no better. It was the mixed economy, regulated market, welfare state institutions created by the efforts of the Progressives including Ely that spread capitalism's benefits more widely and led to greatly increased wealth at all levels. In 1918 Ely (et al.) published The Foundations of National Prosperity. Much of the book advocates conservation and wise management of natural resources, a topic of much interest in America after the frontier closed. Ely's slogan was "Under all is the land." Emphasising ethics, the authors wrote:

"The moral qualities and habits of a nation have almost if not quite as much to do with its success as its intellectual qualities....(Man's)...dominion is secured by greater forethought....greater ability to subordinate the lesser interest of the present to the larger interest of the future.....ability to subordinate the lesser interest of the individual to the larger interest of the group, the community, or the nation" (Ely, 1918:277-78).
Ely also emphasised what later came to be called human capital and the full utilisation of each individual's energy and training...."the most valuable resource of any country is its fund of human energy..the working power, both mental and physical of its people." (Ely, 1918: 275) Social justice is necessary to enable people to work together for a common purpose, to ensure the legitimacy of laws and institutions, and to reduce conflict.

Graaskamp extended a notion of Ely's that those who make investment decisions have an especially responsible role in market economies. If they make poor decisions, private and social wealth will be squandered. Good projects, those justified by market demand and financial feasibility, create wealth. Ill conceived and poorly executed projects destroy wealth. Moreover, in building the human environment, real estate decisions mould society. Graaskamp was fond of remarking that real estate decisions "interact with every major social issue of our times." Mankind, he said "is the only creature that builds its own environment then lives in it." This gives real estate entrepreneurs a heavy responsibility to create of livable, beautiful world to foster human creativity and community.

So rather than simply learning how to make a dollar flogging real estate, Graaskamp's students were embarked on a larger mission. They were entrusted with preserving community prosperity and quality of life, and with some obligation towards democracy and equity. Graaskamp made clear his dedication to American ideals such as a work ethic, rewarding merit not hereditary position, and equality of opportunity.

Graaskamp had considerable success in espousing this ethical vision. His students attained an esprit de corps missing from most university programs. He was considered by many to be the pre-eminent real estate educator of his generation. Certainly he was one of the most effective in motivating students to put forth extra effort in pursuit of transcendent goals.


A major theme in economics, psychology, and philosophy during the past century has been alienation. Our university students carry their full share of alienation. Many find their studies meaningless, a sort of minimum security prison they have to endure before beginning real life. There is plenty of evidence that we should all be worrying about the future outcomes in a world being used up by greed and overpopulation. The world is rife with violence, exploitation, and injustice. In a sense, generation x's discouragement is a rational assessment of living in a period of "decline and fall."

One way to try to uplift and motivate student's efforts, and our own, may be to try to connect our efforts to something larger--to an ethical vision of how we would like the world to be, and the contribution that our discipline can make to achieving better collective outcomes. This is a responsibility as well as a means of enlivening classrooms.

I confess that I have not been able to put the above ideas into practice in my own teaching or way of life. There seems to be too great a gulf between my experiences and those of my students, between the size of social problems and our individual ability to do anything about them. However, I am convinced that in the future, ethical visions will be a key to change and survival in the real estate industry. Growth in population will cease. Energy prices may rise forcing markedly different configurations for investment in cities. The problems of American centre cities demonstrate connections between social justice and property values. Some sense of social justice and collective self-interest will play a huge role as the 21st century real estate industry is forced to adapt to new conditions. A moral compass has always been important in real estate and this will perhaps be even more true in the future. It does not matter how fast you go, if you are going in the wrong direction.


Ely, Richard, et al. (1918). The Foundations of National Prosperity. New York: Macmillan.

Jarchow, Stephen (ed) (1991). Graaskamp on Real Estate. Washington: Urban Land Institute.

Please cite as: Kummerow, M. (1999). Ethical vision in teaching and research. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 205-209. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/kummerow.html

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