Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mercantile Exchange

In which we sell the value of an education

The Felix Chronicles, # 29

(Photo by Nina Freedman)

Open School Night: The longest day of the year. We have a full day of classes, then a break, then a dinner given to us by the school, then a couple hours of ten-minute classes for the parents. By the time we get home, it will be about 10 p.m. That’s not so bad, except that it takes a while to decompress before you can get to bed, and the next thing you know you’re back at school. It always feels like you’ve never left. That’s why I think of this as one of the most grueling weeks of the academic calendar, rivaled only by the cresting frenzy in the final weeks of the school year.

I love it.

Open School Night is the one evening of the year in which I can imagine what it feels like to be famous. Everyone seems to know who you are, which is fun, though I’m always mentally scrambling to place faces and recover names. But there’s an enormous sense of good will and people are usually willing to help you out. (“Hi, I’m Mindy's mom.”) Some of my colleagues complain about overbearing parents, and advise new faculty to run out the clock in their mini-classes so as to forestall windbag disquisitions or impertinent questions. Those risks are real enough, and I do encounter such situations occasionally. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

Open School night is the last Thursday in September, and by now, I’ve developed a series of routines around it. I live close enough to school to return home after classes, and use the late afternoon interlude to catch up on housework like laundry and a late-season lawn-mowing. I change into clean clothes with a necktie with some kind of history motif, and head back to school to savor the annual dinner, which allows me more time to chat with colleagues than I typically get at lunch. After that I head back to my office, actively avoiding the parents who have begun to congregate in hallways and on the Quad, as I haven’t yet psyched myself into performance mode. I spend a few minutes with the family directory to brush up on names I’ve forgotten or want to know, and then head to my classroom, which by this point is full of parents, with more to come as they grope their way with the help of student volunteers decked out in special T-shirts indicating their role as helpers.

I have a standard pitch, which involves identifying myself and saying how pleased I am to be working with their children. I survey the shape of the class – the various units, the major assignments, how the course fits into the larger curriculum, and so on. I ask if they have any questions, and when there’s a moment of silence that follows, I scold the parents for their lack of class participation and say that their children put them to shame. If, after the requisite chuckles, they’re still reticent, I ask how what I’m telling them comports with their own experience of history. In the back-and-forth that always begins sooner or later, I tell them that they are all a real presence in my classes, that these kids invoke them all the time. I think they’re pleased to hear that. And, in general, I think they’re pleased with my work. To a great degree that’s because they want to be pleased with my work. Literally and figuratively, they’ve made a big investment in this place, and I want to help them feel good about it.

On this night, as it happens, I have a class with two financier fathers, in a week in which there’s been tremendous volatility in the stock market. One I know from various committees and encounters at the school, and he greets me heartily. The other, who I only know by reputation, is more self-contained. After I finish my schtick this latter father asks me if I include current events in my classroom. The answer is yes – I’m typically asked, and explain that I refer to the presidential race – but this time, I steer my answer by going in a different direction. Just today, I tell them, we were discussing British imperial trade policy, the Navigation Acts, and the concept we’ve come to know as mercantilism. Mercantilism is a relatively abstruse concept, and I often find in my teaching that the best way to explain what something is involves telling them what it isn’t. In this case, I say, I run the my story forward and say that in the otherwise inconsequential year of 1776, Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that the best way for Britain to advance her interests economically was not to manage them from London, but rather to let participants in the market proceed as they see fit. The invisible hand, and all that stuff I know you all understand.

But, I continue, what I also told your kids today is that we’re now living in an time of neo-mercantilism. That in an age of Aramco in Saudi Arabia and sovereign wealth funds in China and Indonesia, traditional corporations like ExxonMobil and Lehman Brothers (which has just gone belly-up) are becoming quaint relics. More and more, the wealth of nations is just that – trade as a form of national aggrandizement.

“How much time do you spend on this?” this father asks. I can’t quite tell whether he’s testing to see if there’s any substance behind this little piece of curriculum, or he's implying that I should stick to my day job and leave the finance business to others.

"Not a lot," I answer. "Because as much as I want kids to understand that the past has real relevance and continuity in the present, I also want to convey its strangeness, the way people in other times are truly different in their assumption and beliefs." Here I make a little digression into my discussion of tolerance, and how a concept we tend to regard as a shared value was looked upon with disdain and even abhorrence when it came to Catholicism in seventeenth century England, for example. That tolerance is just another way of saying that you don't give a damn.

Our time is up, and people shuffle out, some pausing with warm thanks and hellos. The other banker is beaming like a proud parent. “I endowed this guy,” he seems to be saying. There’s a good deal of truth to that, of course. Every once in a while, I feel like a celebrity around here. And every once in a while, I feel like the hired help. Probably good to feel both. Occasionally.