In which we sell the value of an education
The Felix Chronicles, # 29
(Photo by Nina Freedman)
I love it.
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
“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
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.