This article originally appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Harker Magazine.
By Brian Yager, delivered at the 2018 graduation ceremony
For the senior class trip to Laguna Beach, I packed two books. I cannot imagine a trip to the seaside without some reading material, and I also picked my books with an eye towards preparing comments for the 2018 graduation ceremony. The first book was “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, the author of “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir for which McCourt received the Pulitzer Prize. The second book was “What Money Cannot Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” written by Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University.
Graduation, like other significant moments in our existence, is a time when time itself is especially fluid in our lives. We are immersed in memories and asked to envision the future, looking backward and forward in equal measure, as nostalgia for the past mingles with the excitement and expectation of how the future might unfold. In “Teacher Man,” McCourt shares that we neither can nor should assume too much about the trajectory of our own lives, nor set limits on what might fill them. The book, written after “Angela’s Ashes” thrust McCourt into the international spotlight, is an autobiography covering McCourt’s principal vocation for his entire working life: that of a teacher of high school English in New York City. He did not write “Angela’s Ashes” until he was 66 years old. When asked why he did not pen his seminal novel until nearing the age of retirement, he proclaims, “I was teaching, that’s what took me so long.” McCourt benefited from the wisdom of his years as he experienced the onslaught of fame and opportunity that came with it, noting that despite his surprise at the success of his work, he still considered himself a teacher who had written, rather than as a writer who had taught.
In “What Money Cannot Buy,” Sandel explores the challenges – and the hazards – of attempting to quantify and assign monetary value to moral decisions. He notes that in a world increasingly intent on monetizing value and assessing well-being and success in economic terms, there are some things that money cannot buy, or measure. He shares some thought-provoking findings, some of which are particularly timely for our graduating seniors. These include: the negative long-term impact of paying students for good grades; the moral consequences of allowing families to purchase the right to bypass lines at Disneyland; and the deleterious outcomes associated with compensating Swiss citizens for the inconvenience of having a nuclear waste repository in their neighborhood. This last finding deserves further exploration.
In 1993, Swiss authorities identified the ideal site to store the country’s nuclear waste. The problem was that the site abutted a small village. When polled about their willingness to live with the storage facility next to them, 51 percent of the town’s citizens indicated that they would accept the decision. Wanting a larger proportion of the town’s citizens to approve of the plan, economists also offered to pay each citizen for the imposition. Expecting this added benefit to lead to a greater rate of acceptance, officials were shocked to discover that only 25 percent approved of the idea when paid for their trouble. The added bonus actually decreased the town’s willingness to be a nuclear repository.
Sandel explains that once a monetary incentive was added, what had been seen as a civic duty was turned into a commodity. The villagers were originally motivated to do their part for their country. The monetary incentive that was offered created a market mentality that superseded a moral stance. Money, it turned out, could not only not buy civic action, it undermined it.
In examining the ways we assign value to non-economic components of our lives, Sandel also ventures into a discussion on the concept of return on investment – ROI – and how we might consider the benefits, especially long-term, of both monetary and moral outcomes.
In this lens, it seems fitting to ask the question, what is the ROI from our students’ time at Harker? Certainly, we cannot know this now for our current students, for so much of the impact of their time here will manifest over the course of their entire lives – which we hope will be both long and fruitful. However, we can still explore a little in the abstract, and use history as a guide.
Through the lens of economic benefit, it seems a virtual certainty that collectively our graduates will be wealthier for their time here, and that the return on investment for them as a group will be significant. They will materially benefit in many ways from their days as Eagles. Most noticeably, by successfully graduating from Harker, the Class of 2018 and those following it will have developed the skill sets and the social capital to position themselves well for a future that is very successful in the traditional, economic sense.
However, not all of our graduates will be financially better off from their time at Harker. Not all of them will be able to claim, at the end of their careers some 50 years from now, that Harker was a worthwhile investment from a financial standpoint. At least, we hope that this is the case. For some of them will choose to pursue things in their careers, and outside of them, that will be of far greater personal value to them than can be obtained or even measured in a monetary sense. Each student’s return – the “R” in ROI – is and should be about different things for him or her, as each will have different goals, ambitions and moral compasses. Sandel’s exploration of the power of markets is, at its heart, a referendum on this notion – that value, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder.
For McCourt, who noted that while his life became much more celebrated once he became famous, his life’s real work was to teach, and he did so willingly, gladly and successfully for more than 40 years, despite constant challenges and low pay, and the status of teaching as “the downstairs maid of professions in America.” In fact, he not only recognized this status, he valued it, for it let him know that his career choice was not driven by prestige and money, but by his desire to have a different kind of impact.
There is a related theme to Sandel’s book that provides an additional perspective of value for all of us. He reflects on the fact that economic models examine behaviors in the context that all resources are scarce, and that we make decisions based on optimizing the benefit of resource use over time, constantly weighing whether we should consume something now, or save it for later, but knowing that we cannot do both. Sandel asks the question: what about love? Economic modeling, he notes, “ignores the possibility that our capacity for love (and benevolence) is not depleted with use but enlarged with its practice.”
“Think of a loving couple,” he writes. “If, over a lifetime, they hoarded their love, how well would they fare? Would they do better to treat one another in more calculating fashion, to conserve their love for the times they really need it?”
The answer, of course, is no. Love is not a depletable commodity. Rather, the more love we share, the more love there is. Unlike in the world of physics, in which every particle created must also have an antiparticle, love can grow unbounded, unlimited by the rules of markets or the laws of physics. We ask our graduates to keep this in mind in the years ahead.
As we say farewell to Harker’s graduates of 2018, we do not actually say goodbye. Rather, we recognize this significant transition, and we say hello to them as adults. In the years ahead, we look forward to seeing how they will define and find success, how they will make the world a better place, not because of the compensation for doing so, but in spite of it, and we hope that they will continually experience and contribute to the power of love.