Who gets your attention?

The sermon in church this weekend discussed Matthew 6:24-34, which begins “No one can be a slave of two masters.” The passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount and teaches us to alter our attitude towards money. The analogy within the passage is money as a master distracting minds and dictating actions – in the purchases we make and how we expand our lifestyles to fit our income – rather than serving them.

This conception of money led, as all economic issues do, to Adam Smith. He questions: “to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world?” This isn’t a broad ‘why are we here?’ question but focused on the driving force behind our acquisition of money. Our initial, instinctual answer is that we use money to live. In our modern world money has replaced the direct trading of goods. When we need bread, clothing, shelter and don’t have the means to provide it for ourselves, we use money to purchase these items. But Smith continues: “What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them.” We do not increase our wealth for basic necessities, nor can we say we do so to exist comfortably.

These questions are posed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (section III chapter II) in a chapter focused on the origin of ambition. Smith recognises that we constantly better ourselves through improved skills, promotions and bigger houses. What reasons can we provide for this ambition to be better? Is it happiness, contentment, comfort? Each of these advantages could be purported and swiftly criticised. This is Smith’s answer: “To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us. But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation. The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him.” Wealth opens the eyes of the world towards you.

This argument grabbed my attention because it made me reflect the educational gap, which has been a discourse within journals as well as national papers for a long time now. There is gap between the richest and poorest students because we have observed the needs of the rich and ignored the poor.

Smith describes the poor man. He is “ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers…The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel.”

A harrowing image is conjured in my mind of the child in Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Way from Omelas. If you are still to read this short story, it is worth a 10 minute read: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf. In the story, the community are blissfully happy. Le Guin describes their jubilant celebrations in vivid detail as horses “flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another” (even they are “vastly excited”). As the story progresses, we are told that this joyous scene can only exist because there is a child who takes all the suffering from the community. The city dwellers accept that their happiness is possible only if the child continues to live in utter distress, pain and misery.

Not observing the causes and solutions to the educational gap can lead to the acceptance of it. The education profession has now openly discussed this issue and rejected the status quo. The challenge now is to refocus our attention without vain ambition to be the best but with compassion to take heed of those who have been overlooked and put them fully in our sight to progress.

References: Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments; Ursula Le Guin The Ones Who Walk Way from Omelas.

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