We can put a monetary value on anything, but we should not sell everything. Some people note a relative decline in respect for Christianity in America in young adults (though not globally), but they fail to notice a similar growth in skepticism about our legal and educational establishments. This suggest the problem is less Christianity, but more something that American Christianity has done in common with other areas of American culture that used to have widespread trust.
Perhaps the deep reason for growing cynicism is the commodification of fields or areas that should not be commodified. We should not sell religion, law, or education for profit.
Sell Some Things, but not Everything
Living out a truth is different than selling it. A person can sell a product, a Ruben sandwich, but cannot sell romantic love. Anything that is called “romantic love,” is not love if it can be sold, since such love is by nature a free gift. Since love is more important than a Rueben sandwich, marketers will sell the sandwich by associating it with love. We move product by tying it to something good, true, and beautiful.
Oddly, this causes us to miss the yummy goodness of the Rueben (beautiful in its humble way) and over expect. Two things are cheapened.
Marketing the eternal things does not cheapen the idea. . just us. Humans cannot touch Love Itself, but the marketing does impede our ability to experience love. If the sandwich was hawked to make us happy, and then as a sandwich must do, disappoints us, then we may view love as a rip off. Marketers have put a small barrier up between us and Love. Do that enough times and people can have a problem. Generally, we should refrain from selling things that cannot be sold and stick to peddling product, though even then there are ethical standards. One should not lie or overpromise.
One bad thing that has happened since I was a boy is the selling of law. Lawyers used to refrain from many kinds of advertising. Now they do not and many must do some advertising. They are selling the law and this is troubling.
Because law and a good legal defense is so vital to citizens in a Republic, we provide everyone a public defender, if they cannot afford their own lawyer. One thing conservatives and liberals should agree on is the need to make sure such programs are well funded. Lawyers are strongly encouraged to do some work pro bono and most do. Of course, there were always some lawyers who cared more about money than the law (insert lawyer jokes here), but there is a big difference between a field trying to maintain the dignity of the law and simply giving up.
Dignity may have elements that are culturally relative. One culture may view burping at a meal as dignified behavior, another not. Even if we assume all decisions about what is dignified are culturally relative, they are still important. They signal when something important is being done. Not every act in my life must (or should!) be done with equal amounts of dignity. My wedding was more serious and important event than my bachelor party and so the dignity of the ceremonies was different.
Put simply, there are good reasons the government forbids selling bodily organs, but one is the dignity that each human should receive in death. Hawking humanity would not be good for our view of self or other people. You can put a value on a heart, but you should not.
Persuasion versus Sales
The ancient art of rhetoric helped persuade people to adopt the truth, see new beauty, or find moral goodness. The rhetoricians could use the tools of their trade to make ideas they knew were bad, look, good for money. These bad men were the first sophists: educators and rhetoricians for hire. We call what they do “sophistry.” Plato, himself a master of rhetoric, was brutal in his condemnation of immoral uses of rhetoric.
When properly used, however, rhetoric simply was good teaching techniques, helpful ways to persuade while educating. Rhetoric combined with a genuine pursuit of truth helps the seeker find by creating a comprehensible map to the truth. The proper goal of a rhetorician is to serve the truth, wherever that may be, by framing the truth in a beautiful setting.
Truth should be appealing!
Some of the same techniques can be used in sales, but with fewer constraints. Let me stress: there is nothing inherently wrong with sales or sales techniques. Money based economies have reduced global poverty and are effective engines of cultural development. A salesperson is open:
1. Buy my product.
2. You will gain the benefit of the product.
3. I will gain money.
This can be abused, just like rhetoric, but is not exploitative. Most often everyone gets what they want. Sales has as a goal service and profit. The customer is served by the product and the company makes money. Since the product is not of existential importance, the moral seriousness of the transaction is much less. An infomercial for a soap do entertainment in ways that the serious business of educating souls should not.
The danger comes when the non-profit, humane disciplines (law, theology, education, medicine) turn to the salesman and break the more constrained bonds of the rhetorician. This may initially lead to a burst in sales (see the growth of online schools hawked like timeshares), but also to growing cynicism. When the “sales force” of a University is cut off from the overwhelming moral mandate to educate the student, problems grow.
The non-profit things must be subsidized by the for-profit areas or by patrons. They do cost money to run. People must be paid. Still money should never be the motivating force. Administration should be kept light as the law, education, the church all exist to serve and not to be served. Open access to some basic legal, medical, educational, and theological care can never be based on ability to pay like we might allow with a product like Disneyland.
There are many issues that must be discussed, but the attitude will make all the difference. A school straining with all her might to educate will be an alma mater and not a leviathan dedicated to careers.
Education Is Not A Product (Church isn’t either!)
College education has become a product and that is a problem. Even asking what education is shows the difficult with commodification. Education is not just job training, but preparation for human flourishing. People are not products or means to other ends. If one thinks of education as preparing citizens for the Republic and subjects for the Kingdom of Heaven, as Christians educators do, then viewing a student as a customer is impossible. The product of a good education is a whole soul and nobody can own a soul or sell a soul.
Sometimes I wonder if schools that hawk education product breach the XIII amendment!
Socrates did not leave his students deep in debt. Jesus called his students “friends” and died for them. His alumni organization was a gathering of believers, not primarily a fund raising mechanism. Of course, Socrates and Jesus had to be supported. All hail the noble men who supported Socrates and the good women who funded the ministry of Jesus! Modern labs cost more than a pair of sandals for the sage or a robe for the Master, but they are not the main reason for the huge and rising costs of higher education.
I suggest the main reason is the growth of the administrative university. The focus is too often on maintaining the system and not on serving the student. If the focus were to change, if the professors and the needs of the students became central, then oddly costs would go down and quality increase! Research, also vital to a Republic and to the Kingdom, would also need funding, but that funding should be separate from the job of education.
Both matter, but we must educate to survive. An uneducated generation is an existential crisis to the Republic in ways that delays in particular research programs are not. We can do education and research but we must begin with education.
Christianity is true. Jesus came and showed us the nature of God. He provided the way for us conquer evil and death and become like God. We live the truth and hardworking pastors and bishops provide the structure and sacramental unity for our gatherings. We build beautiful settings when we can, because this becomes art and culture for everyone. Any person can enter Saint Joseph or Saint George here in Houston and see the beauty of world class iconography provided by the patrons of the community. Nobody ever has to pay a thing for most of the services of the church. You can see a pastor for advice. You can get grace from the sacraments of the church. You experience the beauty maintained by the faithful over centuries.
None of it is done with hope of profit or power. The church has continued with the liturgy in nations where going to church may mean death (Syria) and also cultural marginalization (atheist regimes like North Korea or China). Being fre from sales may be one reason that the church in China is defeating secularism. The educated leave atheism for theism!
Let’s persuade and argue based on the quest for truth. Educators must educate. Pastors pastor. When we do this, then benefactors and patrons will come. People will pay as they can to support worthy projects, schools, hospitals, clinics, and centers to help the poor. Good pastors like my Dad have always known this truth and have been dismayed with a generation trained to build structures and power centers. Great educators like Professor Al Geier taught classes for free for decades outside the University structure that taught so many of us.
The cynacism about church, law, and education may come from commodification of something that cannot be commodified.
Let’s be non-profits again!