Education as a gift and commodity

Dr. Philipp Rosemann, Contributing Writer

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Due to the idea of having “two economies,” one in a secular sense and the other theological, we can begin to grasp the concept of the importance of education. Photo by Elizabeth Kerin.

The ancient Greek term “oikonomia” did not designate what we normally call “economy.” Literally meaning “law of the house,” oikonomia indicated the order that was brought to bear on a particular area of reality, ranging from a household to a state. Thus, oikonomia could mean “arrangement,” “administration” and “stewardship.” It is in the latter sense that the word figures in the Septuagint and in the New Testament. In Luke16, for example, it appears in the parable of the unjust steward: “And he said also to his disciples, ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward (oikonomon), and the same was accused unto him, that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said to him, “How is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship (oikonomias), for now thou canst be steward (oikonomein) no longer.” ’ ”

Against the background of this biblical usage, the Greek Fathers applied the term oikonomia to God’s stewardship of his “house,” which is creation itself. In this way, the Eastern Church came to speak of oikonomia as distinct from theologia. Whereas “theology” is the logos regarding God in himself, “economy” means God’s governance of the world, in particular his actions in salvation history.

Because we have come to understand “economy” as the word expressing a system of production, trade and consumption, the theological sense of the term must nowadays seem strangely unfamiliar and even jarring. This is all the more so as the two economies — the divine and the profane — are administered in diametrically opposed ways. God’s very creation is a gift, as is his redemptive action in salvation history; there is nothing for sale here. For this reason, the Church has always considered simony — the sale of sacred realities, from relics to ecclesiastical office — a grave sin. Our secular economy, by contrast, is governed by the principle of exchange through money. There is nothing in it that has no price and is not for sale.

Education occupies a place in both economies, which can be confusing. The ambiguity attached to education is not a modern phenomenon. Just as the Church has long accepted “stipends” for religious services like baptisms and Masses, so medieval professors — the masters, who were priests, or at least in minor orders — accepted “stipends” from their students. The use of the word “stipend” (from the Latin noun “stips,” meaning “gift” or “alms”) indicates the need to emphasize that, strictly speaking, neither the Church nor the master is paid for any services rendered. Rather, a gift is made to facilitate, in turn, another gift, be it the gift of grace or the gift of education.

In fact, the structure of education shares much with the structure of grace. Most importantly perhaps, there is no diminution of the giver in the giving, which is unheard-of in the secular economy, with its logic of loss and gain. In other words, when Johnny sells his iPhone to Mary, he loses the use of his cellular device to Mary, who in turn compensates Johnny for his loss. By contradistinction, when God creates, he loses nothing; even God’s sacrifice of his own son for our salvation does not diminish him in any way. When God moves “outside” of himself, there is no loss of self, so that for God, immanence and transcendence are the same. Amazingly, any humble teacher can have an analogous experience in the classroom. I do not lose my knowledge of Plato by teaching the “Republic” or the “Symposium;” in fact, the opposite happens: my gift of knowledge to my students makes me firmer in my command of the material! This is an authentic experience of the logic of the gift, in which there is gain without loss — just an overflow of goodness, as the Neoplatonists would say.

But we are not gods. Just like the priest who says Mass, the professor who teaches the “Symposium” exists in a material world where shelter, clothes, food, cars and gas cost money. This is why education cannot be free, even if it has, at heart, the nature of a gift. As a consequence, a university is not only an educational institution, but also a business. It incurs expenses for salaries and many other costs while generating revenue to balance its books.

It would be unrealistic, then, to denounce the business aspects of education. The important thing is to honor the distinction between the economic order of the gift and the economic order of loss and gain and to resist the temptation of reducing the former to the latter. This temptation can be overwhelming in a world that is completely dominated by considerations of production and consumption. Nevertheless, a professor, properly understood, is never a human resource providing educational services while a student, ultimately, is not a customer investing in his or her career — even if the professor receives a salary and the student is recruited to pay tuition.

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