Invisible Hand

“Economics,” from what we were told and taught, comes from the Greek word oikonomia: “to manage a house.”  For a class as big as ours in fourth year high school, to manage a house of learning was no easy feat.  I would guess that it would be all the more difficult if you taught introductory economics.

Demand and supply curves are things we don’t often plot about in advertising and marketing.  The sum of our work is more or less the subject of big ideas predicated by manifestos, more at home with the humanities and design than with hard and fast economics.  Yet when target markets are phrased it’s almost always impossible to divorce yourself from the economics of things.  We are, after all, in the business of generating demand.

It requires great teachers to inculcate even the tiniest bit of that mindset to students while they’re young.  To be a bit more curious and caring towards the house they’re living in, and the people they’re living with.

The subject was not just economics, but hard and fast oikonomia: that the house being managed may be built on material foundations, but is built on a bedrock of values.

It takes great teachers, and I had a great one.

She was short of stature; her eyes bearing a piercing yet nurturing gaze that comes with 30-odd years of teaching the whole gamut of history and economics to rambunctious and restless high school students.  It wasn’t the easiest subject to teach, after all.  Memorization took a back seat to analysis.  To think critically was not enough: one had to think analytically.  Unlike carrying rifles under the blazing sun or stellar evolution, economics had everything to do with our daily lives.

A piercing gaze: one that cut a very, very clear line between the “correct” answer and the “right” answer.  Especially at a time when we were all still grappling for the meaning of the word “empirical,” or leafing through heavily-condensed material from Gunnar Myrdal’s “Asian Drama.”  It was a nurturing gaze: that the correct answer is inferior to the right answer.  Especially when dealing with a subject that requires more empathy than the ability to plot and trace a proper curve.

I’m not sure if I ever did well in that economics class over a decade ago, but my teacher could not have come at a better time to open my eyes to the world.  It was a changing world at that: EDSA Dos, 9/11, the trial of Joseph Estrada.  She taught us – and hundreds and perhaps thousands of students following us and before us – that we cannot divorce ourselves from the world because we were in classrooms.  “The correct way of doing things is not necessarily the right way,” which was inculcated in us through reading the papers and writing reaction papers, and less of basic economics formulas or multiple choice quizzes on “What is the Bread Basket of the Philippines.”  It sticks, to this day: to create good solutions you must have an understanding of the society you live in.

Yet that bedrock of values, no matter how shifting it may seem at times, is always stable.  To understand, as to be understood.  To give, as to be given.  To learn, as to be learned.  To care, full stop: in a world where economics is always defined by a lack, empathy is a potentially endless resource that humanity should never be in short supply of.

It’s a lesson that sticks, and I hope I don’t fail in it.

When news of her passing reached me today I wondered if I had the words to tell the world of my memories of one of my favorite teachers and mentors.  But then I realized that that is the correct way of doing things like elegies and tributes.  The right way, though, is to live those lessons and carry them along, whether it’s oikonomia in the scale of a household, or oikonomia at the scale of brands, or perhaps even entire governments and global systems.  It’s her spirit, I guess, that moves me on, what guides me.

Like what Adam Smith said about markets, I guess.

RIP, Ma’am Evelyn.

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