Matters Column

Education and culture critical to a successful community

February 21, 2014
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My college education was Jesuit at the University of Detroit. There are those who claim a Jesuit education is too cerebral, but I liked it. The Jesuits within Catholicism were the great thinkers and innovators, so it was refreshing. The current pope is a Jesuit and already he is shaking things up. 

My point is that, as far as I know, I can still refer to Grand Rapids as a Christian community. I hope the PC police don't come to get me. Come to think of it, if they did, they would have a hard time finding me in my retired vagabond state.

Religion plays a large role in our community, and most of the leaders who have made our community exceptional are Christian. My Catholic education definitely affected my world view, and I believe Christian education has had a positive effect in Grand Rapids. 

I believe that many of the foundations of excellence are based on Christian principles. I read a book titled “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who grew up in Somalia, an Islamic country. She left Somalia as a political refugee and ended up in The Netherlands. There she got an education and became a member of Parliament. After film director Theo Van Gogh was murdered by Islamic radicals, she had to enter a protected existence.

To me, the most interesting point she made in the book came from a description of how a flood in Somalia was handled in comparison to The Netherlands. She was amazed to see the co-ordination between communities during a flood in Europe: sand bags, bulldozers and legions of workers with little rest fighting to save their cities and farms. The water was held back and most communities were saved. 

Her assertion was that, in Somalia, the residents would have watched the flood develop unchallenged and then attributed the damage as the will of Allah. Did that culture develop because of religion or was that the culture prior to the religion? I don't know; I am an accountant. 

My point is that attitude or culture — regardless of its source — is a primary cause of successful communities.

Interpretation of religious directives can be interesting. Many years ago a young man came to me for advice. His parents objected to his ambition to be a successful businessman. They quoted the Bible’s assertion that the meek shall inherit the earth. 

I told him about a Jesuit priest in college who had been a translator of the Bible from Aramaic to Greek to English. The priest stated that the word “earth” could just as well have been translated as “dirt.” In other words, “The meek shall inherit the earth” may have meant instead, “The meek shall inherit dirt.”  

Which do you think is more accurate from your life observations? The young man seeking advice about becoming a businessman went on to have a very successful career. Can you think of any business leaders you would consider meek? Humble maybe, but not meek.

A little ignorance led me to be confused for years by the Bible’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The parable is about a man leaving on a long trip who leaves varying amounts of talents to three slaves. 

As a grade-schooler I could not understand slavery nor could I understand how a slave owner could give his slaves talent. I figured if that was how talent was acquired, I needed to go buy some. Anyway, I discovered later that a “talent” was a Roman coin, and the parable made a lot more sense. 

Two of the slaves made good use of the money and when the master returned, they were able to give him his original talent plus a healthy profit. The third slave buried his allotted talent until the master’s return and was only able to return the original talent without profit. 

It would be bad enough to be a bad money manager as an employee. Think about how bad it would be as a slave. In some cases there is really not much difference, come to think about it. 

So 2,000 years ago there was Dave Ramsey-type advice written in a holy book. That advice has been taken as gospel, so to speak, for thousands of years and is still valid today. 

How much of our community’s success can be attributed to the Bible’s simple truths? Culture is destiny, and religion is a large part of culture. Grand Rapids is an entrepreneurial community in part because our children learn at school and at home some simple truths that, if followed, generally result in a good life. 

My original interpretation of talent, by the way, is also valid. If you have talent and don't use it, that is the same as the slave burying the coin. What a waste when you see people who don’t take advantage of their natural abilities. In most circumstances, a proper education would have prevented the waste. An entrepreneurial community nourishes and enriches talent.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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