This I Believe, February 2014: Jeanne Boeh

Respect and Vocation

Jeanne Boeh is a professor of Economics at Augsburg College

As some of you may know and some of you may even care; Adam Smith, the father of economics, is buried in Edinburgh. One of PBS’s well known and admired hosts is the travel author Rick Steve’s. I was aghast to read his explication of how to find Adam Smith’s grave in Edinburgh.

People’s Story-This interesting exhibition traces the conditions of the working class through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Curiously, while this museum is dedicated to the proletariat, immediately around the back (embedded in the wall of the museum is the tomb of Adam Smith-the author of Wealth of Nations and the father of modern free market capitalism(1723-1790). [i]

This was surprising because it suggests a very poor understanding of Adam Smith and his philosophy. While Smith’s quote about butcher’s or bakers is well known:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.  We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.[ii]

Today he would write, it is not from the benevolence of the smartphone maker or the barista…However, other and even more important quotes are not in the common lexicon. This is significant because Adam Smith is often portrayed incorrectly as an apologist for all things business. Rick Steve’s must believe this distortion. In reality, Adam Smith was suspicious of all unchecked powers including business.

People of the same trade seldom meet together,

even for merriment and diversion, but the

conversation ends in a conspiracy against

the public, or in some contrivance to raise

prices.  [iii]

Adam Smith wrote his most famous book: The Wealth of Nations because he wanted more people and more nations to become “wealthy.” Smith was an opponent of England’s then crony capitalism system of mercantilism. He set out to disprove the notion that the richest nation is the one with the most gold and/or Silver. Instead Adam Smith wrote:

A nation is not made wealthy by childish

accumulation of shiny metals, but it is

enriched by the economic prosperity

of its people.  [iv]

He also wrote that:

No society can surely be flourishing and

happy of which by far the greater part of

the numbers are poor and miserable. [v]

How does an economist reconcile Adam Smith and our work at Augsburg? 

One of our tagline lines is “We are called” which harkens to the whole notion of vocation. Martin Luther greatly expanded our idea of what is a vocation including the thought our job was not our sole vocation but we could have more than one simultaneously, e.g., spouse and parent. You could even have a vocation as a business person because it was not the position that made it a vocation but how you performed the job and for whom. Just a hint, it should be for the glory of God not only for an income.

Recently, Augsburg was mentioned as a college offering more possibilities for low income students at the recent White House Conference on College Opportunity. This whole push to have more students pursue higher education reflects the view that more education means higher lifetime income and a better life. Fortunately, this is mostly true.

Our vocation is to help our students develop their potential and to help them develop the skills and tools necessary to succeed not only in their first but also in their later vocations during their lifetime. This sometimes means suggesting to our advisees that another major might be more appropriate. I believe it also means that we don’t, despite the constant pressure of enrollment needs, reduce our standards. As a former professor in one of my classes said, a few (remember few is a relative term) years ago, I’m not coming down you are coming up. Being at Augsburg, we would, of course, phrase it more diplomatically.

At the recent White House Conference, Michelle Obama noted that the value of an education mostly depends on the work the student puts into it. This implies that when a student complains about their poor grade, you have to gently point out they only spent ten minutes on the assignment and consequently a poor grade doesn’t say anything about their potential only their effort. I believe we need to respect our students and ourselves enough to continue to demand their best efforts regardless of their initial starting point and to demand the same of ourselves.

I always tell people that our students are diverse in every way. We do have low income first generation college student but they are not majority of our students especially when you also count the AFA and the graduate programs. After all, our graduate programs have as students nurses, doctors and software engineers. It is imperative to fully develop the talents of all of our students.

Our students are very heterogeneous and while this makes teaching here rewarding; it also means more hours must be spent on each class and each student than at some other schools. This reality, while wearying, is necessary in order to fully respect our students and ourselves as we fulfill our vocation and help them in one of their current vocations as a student.

In conclusion, I am going to quote a prayer by a Tacoma, Washington Lutheran pastor, Glenn Obenberger:

Through a proper understanding of vocation in this life, we too need to value the vocations our neighbors have that serve us and how we in turn through ours serve them. We confess in the explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “[God] has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil.” God gives us these gifts and preserves them through such vocations as doctors, nurses, farmers, millers, bakers, grocers, tailors, realtors, parents, police, firefighters, college faculty and staff and the like. Through our vocations, we have the high privilege of being God’s hands, mouth, and heart of flesh in our world today showing His love and compassion to all.[vi]

Amen


[i] http://books.google.com/books?id=GVtMckyLNVkC&pg=PT58&lpg=PT58&dq=rick+steves+and+grave+of+adam+smith&source=bl&ots=TgkaIzK2B4&sig=0mFbXFW5tYbrGI4PWMifxLZZdAg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wTLjUs3bFPOqsQTs0YCgBA&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=rick%20steves%20and%20grave%20of%20adam%20smith&f=false

[ii] http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN1.html#I.2.2

[iii] http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN4.html#I.10.82

[iv] This quote is doesn’t seem to reflect the last revision of Wealth of Nations but it accurately describes Smith’s theory as indicated here. http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN0.html#I.15

[v] http://www.adamsmith.org/quotes

[vi] I added the phrase “faculty and staff” http://www.evangelicallutheransynod.org/Lutheran-Sentinel/4263/