Economics’ “Adam Smith” hypothesis proposes that, when left alone without government interference, markets tend to arrive at allocations of resources that are as good as those chosen by a central planner. Some have crudely summed up this idea, which can be proven with Calculus, with the phrase “greed is good.” I cringe to hear it put that way, since I remain someone who hopes that my academic work can have a positive effect on the world. I am reminded of this idealism as I recall events from twenty five years ago last weekend.
It was 1989, my last year of graduate school, when I and some friends arrived at the home of a group of Jesuits near the B.C. campus. They had a tradition of opening their home to the university community once a week for an evening mass. There was no official chapel, just a living room with a coffee table, and no pews, just space on the living room floor to sit in a position I would, years later, call “criss cross, applesauce.” Bread was passed around on a platter for those assembled to take and eat, and there was always a snack afterwards. In those weeks before Thanksgiving, in that cozy living room in suburban Boston, it was easy to forget that many people had made radical choices that allowed us to be in that place, at that time. At least, until one Jesuit told us about what had just happened.
That evening, the presiding Jesuit, now President of Philadelphia’s St. Joesph’s University, gave us news from El Salvador. At the University of Central America, “Universidad Centroamericana,” a group of six Jesuit priests had been murdered, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Those priests had been faculty members at the university, trying to bring their research into conversation about the plight of the lives of the people who were caught in that country’s long war. I believe that the death of the housekeeper and her daughter, almost nameless victims, represent many nameless victims of war everywhere.
Recently, a Jesuit reflected on the event. While we had no intention of being shot to death, I think that all of us graduate students in that room hoped that someday our scholarship would also be prophetic.
Alas, I am afraid that the only people who ever wanted to kill me because of my research are my master’s students who were assigned to read my publications. No, my research will probably not be shaking up the world. However, in my many years of teaching, I have come to see that teaching itself can be a radical statement. I have seen professors help students master subjects that have previously been mysterious to them, subjects that they just never understood when taught them the first time. While we have taught many privileged students, I have also taught single mothers, women in the midst of divorce, and young women who were victims of domestic violence. I have seen students struggle through difficult illnesses and stood in horror as some have died. I have seen students succeed in graduate and medical school that came to us from the poorest sections of town, the first generation of people in their families to attend college. No, no one will ever be driven to murder from the words I put down on paper, but that does not mean that I am not part of the great educational project that I learned from the Jesuits and continue with the Ursulines.
I have heard some suggest that the next wave of canonizations in the Catholic Church should be the collection of martyrs from Central America, a group that would include Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four women killed in 1980, including Ursuline College’s own Dorthy Kazel, and the six Jesuits killed in 1989, along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
As I write these words, I think about the girl, who can sometimes be quite a young lady, who shares our home, and choke back a tear.
“Yes”, I think to myself, “and her daughter.”
Wishing my readers a safe and Happy Thanksgiving. I’ll see you back here in December.
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