What Gattaca Taught My Sixth Grader About Ethics

Based on what we see in American and global business, it’s evident concern for others must be taught well past the playground. For example, many politicians take office without knowing how to have a dialogue using advocacy and inquiry to understand why people hold certain beliefs. A young person watching how politicians conduct themselves might think bluster and inflexibility are the only way to get what you want. This sets a bad example, and tells us much about where we are as a culture.
The good news is that kids want to learn how to have productive dialogues with someone with opposing views. Three years ago, I spent a day working at my children’s school, a private, independent school in Los Gatos. The sixth graders started their day watching a clip from the movie Gattaca. At first I was shocked, considering the movie inappropriate for 11- and 12-year-olds. However, they watched only a short part that introduced the concept of couples starting families with the ability to manipulate their offspring’s genes to bring forward the best traits from the child’s parents. The kids talked about the clip from Gattaca all day, not in planned academic settings in English or science class, but during the morning break, lunchtime, and on the carpool ride at home. Students drove the discussion, not teachers.
That day, I had a front row seat to the changing minds of today’s middle school student. By sixth grade, they are not only curious about ethical issues like the ones presented in Gattaca, but they have also started to develop the skills needed to think about them critically.
Humankind is in the midst of one of those great intellectual jumps we have made over the centuries. As lower level concerns get resolved, we can move up Maslow’s hierarchy and work to meet other needs like love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Technology now performs many of the tasks my generation needed to learn in middle school e.g., long division, past participles, the capitals of the 50 states. When today’s child needs such information, they ask Siri to get it for them . . . and she does.
Which leaves a lot of brainpower for higher order reasoning. That’s a good thing, considering a new set of skills are needed in today’s increasingly complex world. There’s a lot of text typed about critical reasoning skills needed to thrive in the 21st century. What does that mean? Two skills I have seen the most urgent need for in my various roles as a newspaper executive, nonprofit CEO, high school president, and mom are ethical reasoning and action and inquiry and analysis—being able to evaluate choices using an ethical framework and having the ability to participate in genuine dialogue.
Can you teach someone to be ethical? Can you teach someone to be interested in effective inquiry and remain open to what is discovered? Given that my next career choice has brought me to an ethics center, obviously I believe you can and should. Higher educational institutions in the United States agree. Ethics and dialogue are expressed as specific expected learning outcomes for university graduates by the Association of American College and Universities.
Santa Clara University students are required to take at least one ethics course. One of the University’s centers of distinction is the Markkula Center for Ethics, which helps make ethics an integral part of a Santa Clara education. The Markkula Center places SCU students in internships in the ethics and compliance departments of Silicon Valley companies and they confirm that, in the “real world” the ability to reason ethically matters. Of course, in 2016, there’s an app for that! Check out the Markkula Center’s ethics app “Making an Ethical Decision.”

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