Skip to main content

Edgar Cahn '56


Next week, my wife, Chris and I will be back here at Swarthmore giving a special course in system change to a group of undergraduates, the Chester Community Fellows, who will be working in Chester and spending one day a week at Swarthmore's Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. But since you won't be here, I thought I would use these five minutes to subject you to a digest of what we will be teaching. A kind of oral Spark notes.

I can sum it all up in three terms you may not have heard: Core Economy, CoProduction and TimeBanking. All of these come from what I learned at Swarthmore, which is to ask: "Why not?"

First, the Core Economy. You may have studied the economy, but there is another economy. Human beings have this strange habit of living 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We haven't been able to break them of that yet. That’s 168 hours each week. Knock off 40 for work, another 70 for, god forbid, sleeping and eating. And you still have about 58-60 hours that are left. That's is a world that exists outside of paid work, outside of market economics. I call it the Core Economy. It's the economy of household, family, neighborhood, community, civil society. It doesn't do anything important, it just raises children, keeps neighborhoods safe, takes care of the elderly, makes democracy work, and tries to keep the planet sustainable. Nothing very important, you understand. That core economy is central to the ecosystem in which we live. That is why my first proposition is that we need to invest in strengthening and protecting the Core Economy of community and civil society.

Second comes this word CoProduction. All of us try to help people, all of us try to make a difference. And when we do so, we define the person or group who we are helping by their problem or need. But they are so much more than their problem or their need. Their problem is just a small percentage of who they are. And the question is how do we unleash the other 80 or 90 percent of who they are, who are functioning, miraculous human beings. I'm a person who designs some of those service programs, so I know that if we fail to enlist those whom we're helping, then eventually our own actions evaporate. There's a new bottom line. The new bottom line is CoProduction. It would mean that every effort, every initiative or program would call for, reward, or even require some kind of in kind match in community participation hours. Every hour we gave would explode outward. So we must stop thinking that it is our job to deliver services and we must ask how do those relationships become the catalyst to enlist the very people and the very communities that we are helping as our partners and as our co-producers of the results we want.

The third piece is TimeBanking. These concerns led me to invest in the creation of a kind of currency that functions on different principles than money because money rewards scarcity. It devalues every universal that defines us as a human being. Every activity of caring, of listening, of standing up for what's right, of opposing what's wrong. All of the things that enable us to function as human beings, we have devalued. We need to value work the market does not value and we need to value people whom the market does not value. Market price does not equal value. Being the best human being you can be is priceless. So I invented this thing called TimeBanking that you've heard about and I just learned last night that 40 new members joined the Swarthmore TimeBank. It's a medium of exchange that values every hour spent helping another human being. That hour is a slice of eternity. It is priceless and TimeBanking has now spread to 38 countries.

Finally, I want to end because all of us are here on a continuing journey. I wanted to share with you two quick memories from how that journey has continued. One was two months ago when I heard my son — and my sons are in some sense Swarthmore progeny — I heard him tell the entire Supreme Court when they asked him "Why shouldn't people come into court wearing shackles?" he explained to them they shouldn't come to the court wearing shackles because the court is a sacred place. The Supreme Court still needs to learn that.

My second memory is with my older son, Jonathan. At the age of 79, I thought maybe I was ready for a Bar Mitzvah. That is the coming-of-age ceremony in Judaism for teenagers. We had our joint Bar Mitzvah after a course of study. So now I am 83 going on 16. I’m almost ready to become an adult. In another year, I will be eligible to apply to Swarthmore for admission. I hope they will readmit me. Thank you so much.

Commencement 2018 Edgar Cahn '56