Dr. Grauer's Column - Teaching Economics and Planting Trees
Teaching Economics and Planting Trees
A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we know we shall never sit.
I. This spring and early summer, our campus was nearly empty and, ironically, it was giving forth as it never had before—a bounty. First to bear fruit was the peach tree, the kind of fruit I had almost given up on in Southern California—fruit with nectar that forms a syrup that runs down your chin when you take a bite. Every day, we pulled a few peaches off the branches—sometimes I just grabbed one that had fallen on the ground and did not even wash it.
Right now, we are not on campus, waiting to resume next week if we’re lucky. We are doing “distance learning” along with many schools all over the country, staying out of harm’s way in these pandemic days. “Virtual” schools are forming and people are even developing new schools where instruction is remote and there is no shared campus. My thought: let’s not forget what “virtual means: it means, “not real.” Let’s not discount what we know “remote” really means. Grauer at heart is neither remote nor virtual. We are place-based. We are inseparable from our land. We are real.
Did you know, eating a little bit of dirt from the place you love is an ancient rite? That’s real.
II. I learned of the giving economy many years ago from the Native Americans and always hoped we could have one at our school: an economy not only based upon the currency of dollars you spend, which we use of course, but equally based upon giving and sharing: a renewing, renewable, regenerating micro-economy right on campus, like a tribe.
It is part of a dream I have that one day all of our students will pick their snack from our orchards and gardens. Once last spring, I grabbed seven or ten peaches, brought them home, let them ripen a little in a paper bag, and made my first peach pie. I want students to do that someday.
There is an apple tree on the north side of the school—I don’t remember how it got planted or what kind of apples it has, but it has been producing a nice bounty, too. First, I thought it produced green apples, so I brought home seven and made a pie, which was pretty good. Later on, as spring turned into summer, the apples turned red and, as I pulled more off a couple times a week, and there was that sweet, sweet nectar again: crunch, drip, like a dream coming true.
III. The land our school has been created on has a long history of bounty: this land was bequeathed by a school grandmother, Joan Knute; our first gala, another bounty, was created by a group of parents wanting to raise money for portable classrooms to drag onto this land; the construction of our buildings overseen by school dad and trustee David Meyer; and many galas since have created a full, regenerative community that gives back to itself, and always “pays it forward” through things like avoiding debt and investing in our endowment.
I don’t know why people keep giving in ways that benefit the next generation more than they even benefit themselves around here, but it has become our “way.” Isn’t that unrealistic?
IV. Maybe because I am an educator, not an economist or financier, I have had no trouble watching our school’s unrealistic practices flourish. Our economics curriculum will tell every student that economics is the study of “scarcity.” I even taught the State economics curriculum for many years. Scarcity is a simple concept: we humans have limited resources available but seemingly unlimited “wants” or “needs.” It seems so obvious. As an economics teacher, I could always grasp and explain scarcity thinking well, and create student projects on it. But in the end, I think I was a lousy economics teacher. Because I don’t think mainly in terms of scarcity and earnings -- I think in terms of bounty and reciprocity. I don’t have or express endless wants, either—I think a person or community of endless wants is greedy and short sighted. Ultimately, I came to think we were wrong to teach our students that the basis for all human commerce is that we’re endlessly greedy-even though I am basically a free market capitalist! With respect to our school and the way I lead it, as well as the way I teach our students, I am glad I have the freedom to be “paying it forward.” But that’s not in the State econ curriculum.
V. The greatest bounties our school cultivates, by far, are our campus and our endowment. I can’t even believe how patient our faculty and board have been, and for many years, as I have taken funds we could have really gone to town with right away, made splashy programs with, or thrown parties with. Instead, I have always put them into long-term investments that pay off only a little a year but do so… forever: campus and endowments.
I don’t like turning our fortunes into quick returns, I like creating what the Native Americans thought of as a gift economy.
One thing special about today, or at least the day last month I started working on these stories, is that the 13th year of teacher endowment payouts is hitting the mail—every year our teachers receive money generated from parents and supporters from as long ago as 13 years. Our teacher endowment holds over a million dollars now and, we never touch the principle(!); rather than creating quick bucks for teachers 13 years ago when it was started, or every year, those endowment gifts get socked away each year. And so, every teacher gets the interest payments of that money, money growing and paying out its gifts, year after year, in perpetuity. Endowment is like those fruit trees—we will never chop those down, even for parking, at least not without planting two more. We tend the soil around them.
If our school has a good year, we ask our patrons and donors to put their money into endowment, not operations, and I feel stunned every time they do so, and sometimes overwhelmed. I am used to the presumption that people in our country are self-interested, that they give to benefit their own selves, and that they are interested in a quick buck. But, at our school, that just keeps not happening. I know other nearby schools that are $50 million in dept, and sure they are beautiful and complex, and big. But we are small by design, and the scarcity theory has simply fallen apart around here!
In our giving economy, the common presumptions are not playing out. Today, every current family is getting the enormous benefits of beautiful classrooms, and fields, and teacher endowments, and smaller classes … all built and paid for by families who came a generation before them and, in many cases, those givers never got to enjoy the fruits of their own gifts—except of course in their hearts and souls. Indeed, there is some value to them in knowing that generations from now, their own alma mater, The Grauer School, will be strong and that one of our diplomas is made of genuine sheepskin: worth its weight in wisdom, stature, and reputation.
Sure, our current families are gratefully taking some of that benefit, but these same current families are also giving to endowment at new levels—they know they are giving to the next generation, who also will be givers, often in greater measure than they are takers. Some theorists posit that givers end up with more than takers, the giving economy irony.
VI. The giving economy is nothing new—it is much older than other economics. There are antecedents of giving economies in anthropology but maybe not taught about all that much in the curriculum of high school economics as required in the state of California. Maybe an economy like that is not modelled all that much by our politicians and corporations, either, but it’s here. Our core, as a school, as an ecosystem, as a community, continually self-renews and becomes more robust so that our students take these far-sighted values with them when they go. Later on, they deposit them all over the world.
Sometimes people want our school to give to other causes, their own favorite causes, which is legitimate giving but, to be honest, I always tell them that our purpose is to give everything to our students and, when they are ready, they’ll be the ones to give to those outside causes. I want our school to be robust. We are our cause.
VII. Did you know we have 40% of our campus as a land trust, kept permanently in native state? We teach reciprocity to our students by creating interpretive trail markers throughout this native habitat, which gives to our students in perpetuity merely by existing.
VIII. The Kumeyaay Indians lived in this area before we did and believed in the spirit of all living things. They may have farmed our land generations ago for all we know. Here is a hint: our coastal sage is thick, not uneven as it is in most natural settings—it is as though it was once cleared and farmed and has now grown back, thick. The Kumeyaay planted trees and fields of grain; grew squash, beans and corn, “the Native American trinity.” They gathered and grew medicinal herbs and plants, and dined on fresh fruits, berries, pine nuts and acorns. They say that these bounties tasted nothing like the mass-produced grocery store varieties: they were more complex and rich in flavor. Farming was regenerative then, and soil was treated as a sacred commodity, just exactly as we treat our School endowments—not as something we add chemicals to, then extract from until it loses its own ability to give. A gift economy means we have to treat the soil just as well as it treats us, and we need cover crops and compost and rotations, etc.
The Indians tried to teach us that a giving economy is not only for people or based on people. The crows and robins had a fair time with our fallen peaches, as did other critters. And this year we created a monarch butterfly way station because, if we don’t create a home for the monarchs, who will? (They are severely threatened right now and dying off fast.) The monarch, with its orange wings laced with black lines adds amazing beauty to our campus. Added beauty is added value—that’s economics!
I’m grateful to the Kumeyaay. I hope they would approve of what we are doing.
IX. Our school core values also are essential to a gift economy. Gratitude and reciprocity flow from giving back: we honor grandparents and elders, impractical beauty that no one owns (like butterflies), and we feed our bodies and spirits on the abundance of belonging and on the presumption of sufficiency: we nourish our school community so that it becomes a place of generosity.
When we think of our campus and our community as a gift going in all directions, rather than a thing someone sells and someone else buys or as a transaction we make, we are drawn into relationships now spanning three decades and we understand how to honor our past benefactors and take better care of our future. This way of all-directions thinking is the only way we can change behaviors, creating the next generation of givers.
Gratitude has become currency at our school. It is the reciprocity that ensures sustainable relationships. It keeps us happy through our days. Also, it is our relationship to the past and future: we reciprocate with those who came before us by paying it forward to those who follow. They will do the same.
X. I almost bought a different school site. It was the site of an existing school that was for sale. The proprietor/seller tried to convince me to purchase his school by explaining that the “cost units” were well accounted for on his financial reports—they penciled. It took me a while, but after I got home, I realized what the cost units were: they were his students! “Don’t be late to class, my little cost units!” So, that was not a gift economy. Except it has become one of my favorite stories—so there’s a gift.
I’ve surrounded myself with financial wizards who keep the school’s books shipshape and audited. I’m also a capitalist, and nobody takes me for a financial ride. It’s just that I see this problem of scarcity not in terms of trying to meet unlimited individual wants and always falling short, but as providing for all future generations by always paying forward. I’m a slow-motion capitalist. A regenerative capitalist.
The pandemic days are of course terrible, but they are also serving as days of regeneration. This season, we harvested peaches, apples, pumpkins, watermelons, many vegetables planted and fed by people a year ago or more, we made a ton of compost, we restored our soil, and next year the harvest will be even sweeter and more nourishing for whoever is around this campus we will end up on together, before you know it.
Like I say, I am a first a teacher not a developer or financier or fundraiser, and I have come to see that when our students are treated not as cost units or test scores that we rank and quantify, they can become a part of the school’s natural systems and values, and our campus becomes more like a community or ecosystem of interdependence. I don’t know if that explains why I want our students to pick their snacks from our orchard and gardens.
Thank you for reading.
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