Public school culture is changing. No matter how desperate we are to imagine any sense of normalcy, “normal” school has been changing for some time now. And with the pandemic thrusting the changes before our eyes, we are responding in ways that reveal the dangerous treasures of our hearts. With existing and imminent returns to the classroom at hand, divisiveness over what decisions are best for teachers, students, and families are drawing out moralistic conflicts in us all.
But this return-to-the-classroom discussion—and the highly polarized debate leaving students, athletes, parents, and teachers swirling in a cesspool of confusion—ought not come as a surprise for us Americans. In reality, if we understood the basic foundation of our socio-political economic system, we would’ve seen the chaos and frustration coming. Looking at a few historical highlights and the effects these have on our economic system and culture at-large provide some clarity and maybe even some direction for next steps.
As a high school economics (and African American studies and sociology) teacher, I teach my students at the beginning of each semester the basic principles of economics: scarcity, factors of production, opportunity cost, utility, and so on. These foundational concepts are the basis for exploring the ways societies form economic systems that will efficiently fulfill their greatest needs and wants.
Instead of breezing past the more popular economic systems in western cultures, I make sure my students take a closer look at the good, bad, and morally reprehensible parts of each one. I also have students keep in mind that we humans are naturally bent toward evil, because we are naturally selfish to varying degrees. We lust for power and misuse it for personal protection and wealth. And even when we try using power for good, we sometimes harm the people we set out to help.The most viable option is to plaster the invaluable image of God onto our neighbors, listen to their needs and concerns, and strive to outdo one another in love in whatever capacity we can.
Understanding our U.S. economic culture, built around the popular free market or capitalist economic system, is key to understanding why we are so divided, confused, and contentious about these in-person schooling decisions.
Capitalism, at its core—and even the root functioning of the word itself—is entrenched in capitalizing on opportunities to get ahead in life. Indeed, it is wise to capitalize on what God blesses us with. God even commands us to capitalize on the resources He gives so that we may cultivate and create beautiful and useful things we need and want. It’s one of the ways we are like Him, made in His image. Indeed, in some of Jesus’ parables, He describes people as lazy and foolish if they fail to prepare or invest (Matthew 25; Luke 11). But just as our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, took it upon themselves to take and capitalize on something God explicitly told them not to, we do similarly. As a result, the bent of our hearts is to unjustly capitalize, not just on the land, but also on people.
Fast forwarding to our present circumstances concerning the in-person versus virtual school debate, we are left dealing with the curse handed down to us from generations ago. In our wicked attempts to play God, we’ve constructed systems—sometimes designed with good intentions (most times not)—that explicitly dehumanize and devalue the image of God in our neighbors. As it relates specifically to our capitalist/free market economic system here in the United States, on the surface it is a good system when all opportunities are considered equal. But we know all economic opportunities are not equal. When we take a closer look, not just at the system itself, but also the intentions of those who instituted our economic system, we can see more clearly the direct line of impending and ongoing conflicts we still struggle to resolve today.
In 1619, the first Africans were brought to the Americas as enslaved peoples. The hopes were to use—or capitalize on, if you will—their bodies, minds, skills, and physical strengths to cultivate and profit on this land. As the elite in colonial America began to prosper and acquire profits off of these Black bodies and the American soil they tilled, the motherland—Great Britain, England more specifically—began making morally conscionable rulings regarding enslavement. The montage of grievances like “taxation without representation” and various other perceived “persecutions” from the motherland gave the founding fathers of the United States a peremptory argument that the tyranny of the king was an impediment on their freedoms to capitalize on humans and land. And thus the Revolutionary War was fought, and won, on a hypocritical and paradoxical set of ideals boasting of freedom and “God-given” inalienable rights—rights that included seeing their Black neighbors as only three-fifths their counterpart.In our wicked attempts to play God, we’ve constructed systems—sometimes designed with good intentions (most times not)—that explicitly dehumanize and devalue the image of God in our neighbors.
Of course, in time abolitionists, anti-racists, enslaved peoples, and brave liberators spoke out and fought for the freedom of enslaved peoples until a bloody war was fought. “The United States drove itself to civil war because the society valued profits over Black humanity,” as Paul Ortiz wrote in his book An African American and Latinx History of the United States. The southern Confederacy lost the Civil War to the Union and was forced to accept the Thirteenth Amendment, which legally freed enslaved peoples from physical bondage (contrary to the popular but misleading belief that Abraham Lincoln freed them single-handedly with the infamous Emancipation Proclamation). Angry and defeated citizens would find other ways to capitalize on Black and brown bodies in the subsequent years following abolition, as the trend continues today.
This founding principle of capitalizing on bodies, or “human capital” as our economics textbooks defines it, was bound to capitalize on other more “valued” classes of workers once the enslaved class no longer existed. Ernesto Galarza notes in Farm Workers and Agri-Business in California, “The black slave, the sharecropper, the hired hand, the migratory harvester, the wetback, the bracero, and all the intermediate types of land workers in America never had any institutional connections with the government because they had never possessed land.” This institutional disenfranchisement gave way to more opportunities to take advantage of people for our immediate wants and needs. Albert Camarillo adds that “the incorporation of Mexican workers into the capitalist labor market” was a way to lock them into a “predominantly unskilled/semiskilled working class at the bottom of the occupational structure,” in his work Chicanos in a Changing Society. And as it is today, we consciously and subconsciously attribute lower value (read, lower wages) with “unskilled/semiskilled” workers. Ironically, we also deem these workers “essential.” This shows us that just because we started paying people for their work didn’t mean we began valuing them as humans.
These types of ideals are symptoms of the belief that we are nothing without a strong economy. It feeds the notion that in order to have a strong economy you must have cheap, or “essential,” labor. It’s also what led Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, to believe a strong economy is worth dying and sacrificing our grandparents for—and it is clear that leaders like him are willing to socially experiment with human lives for the sake of their profits.
So as it pertains to teachers, it’s no wonder there’s a growing voice of disdain from people demanding educators be closed in a room with students for 45 minutes to an hour and a half at a time, with the potential danger of contracting a virus from their students. There’s an expectation that educators simply figure out how to be safe without adequate and clear-cut safety guidance from their respective Departments of Education. Local school districts are left to make decisions that might hold them responsible for potentially spreading the coronavirus, and at faster and more harmful rates. And here is where we can see the baseline properties of capitalism—mainly the devaluing of people—that could cause such dissension in school board meetings across the nation.
However, it is more complicated than just analyzing the value of teachers’ lives. Doing so potentially devalues the lives of single parents who must get back to work to feed their children and avoid evictions. We must not trivialize their personhood when we demand they find a way to juggle life when there are no viable options for keeping their child safely at home for virtual instruction. Do we understand conflicts like this for parents? If not, one can easily understand how the fumes of frustration can spew out some of the most vitriolic responses from our neighbors who are fighting for their families to be valued. Scenes like this reveal that objectification of people is an American way of life—always has been.
But Christians (should) know better than adhering to such shallow cultural guidelines. We have a Redeemer who looked upon us, “the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed,” as theologian Howard Thurman describes, and saw fit to redeem us. We know that we are a body of believers, each performing needed and useful actions for the body to function properly. We know if one part of our body should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” it would be foolish, because we need our ears as much as we need our eyes, and our feet as much as our fingers, and so on. Yet we fail to acknowledge each other’s worth when we fail to do our part to keep the body functioning—and we likewise fail when we don’t acknowledge and concern ourselves with our neighbors’ needs and well-being. Could we have a more robust capitalistic culture if we could find a way to influence our world to see all our neighbors as “essential”?
Unfortunately, regardless how much we philosophize or preach that we are all “essential,” the fact will remain that we cannot feed ourselves and take care of our families unless we prove we have utility in our current economic system. However, we can show as the Church, that people are more valuable than their utility. Our actions can show a world obsessed with using people that we are valuable because God deemed it so when He sacrificed His Son to save us from our greedy, lustful selves. And if we are invaluable beyond monetary status, we ought to analyze the risks and sacrifices our “essential” neighbors take to meet our immediate needs and reach out in whichever way (prayerfully, monetarily, etc.) we can.
As it relates to teachers, my fellow Christ and Pop Culture staff writer Val Dunham notes that we ought to be prepared to do more than just call workers, like teachers, “essential,” in a feeble attempt to capitalize on their skills as educators. We should prepare ourselves to also pay them as if they were vital components of our society. But because our capitalistic economic system affects our cultural biases, it’s hard for people to see workers as anything else beyond “human capital.” And how we understand our system informs how and what we’re asking for from workers who provide services for our families. Without explicit mention of economics, though, Dunham shows a basic understanding of how our capitalistic culture should function if we truly believed it: “Surely meeting social and emotional needs comes with the territory of working with children, and equitable access to education means it is rightfully tuition-free. But if there is to be no supporting infrastructure to help public schools meet these needs,” Dunham writes, “then shouldn’t we be willing to put our money where our mouths are?”
Unless we seriously look at the historical dangers of our approach to economics here in America, we will continually bicker and grow more contemptuous of our neighbors when they fail to provide the immediacy of goods and comfort we desire from them. This includes everyone from workers in the meatpacking industry to superstar athletes. God cares about how we answer these economic questions, because He has an economy that is unlike ours. But instead of capitalizing on people, God calls us to capitalize on mercy, kindness, and justice (Micah 6:8–9). And because we’ve been shown such grace through the forgiveness of our sins by Yeshua’s spilled blood, who are we to withhold such mercy from our neighbor?
In these days, mercy may look like forgoing in-person teaching in exchange for online learning for a bit longer. It may look like sacrificing the safety of social distancing to care for and educate students in-person. There are no easy answers, no theories with elementary solutions that will solve our pandemic woes in regard to public school education.
One thing’s for sure: our answers won’t be found in socio-political-economic systems like socialism, capitalism, communism, nor in economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or John Maynard Keynes. Indeed, there’s nothing even insufferably wrong with their theories in themselves (if you study them without bias). But the troubles arise in whatever system we choose when we place profits over people, expending all our resources and asserting ourselves and our ideas as the meaning for all other life. (Tim Keller does an excellent job outlining the fatalistic woes of each of these types of systems when we become the source of our own morals and meaning.) Yet we must not run from trying to answer these questions. It is the work we’ve been called to do, and it is the curse of sin that makes it difficult to correct. There are no easy answers.
The most viable option is to plaster the invaluable image of God onto our neighbors, listen to their needs and concerns, and strive to outdo one another in love in whatever capacity we can. It will require sacrifices—and I’ve already witnessed some. Some of my stellar teaching colleagues have opted to protect their families by tendering their resignations to avoid teaching in potentially dangerous classrooms. I’ve also witnessed coaches put aside their own health concerns to coach athletes who see sports as their only way to a better future. And I know of parents who are limited on financial options and desperately need their children in the classroom so they can go work and earn money to make an adequate living. Whatever decisions we make, let us find a way to do it in unison—as brothers and sisters who are essential to one another. As Isabel Wilkerson put it recently, “We don’t have time to be at odds with one another…. There’s been so much wasted talent and genius contributions, because we’ve adhered to these caste systems.” These castes are perpetuated by our capitalistic consumption of one another, causing divisions amongst ourselves where God has made none.
Let’s not make people—our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues—our problem. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that insists we use others, which prompts us to tear each other down when we don’t get what we want from one another. But we need not believe and adhere to such lethal logic, because our Creator insists and acts otherwise to and for us. We are more than blessed, gifted, and innovative enough to use the energy fueled by our frustrations to come up with solutions that show and affirm the value in each human soul.