Friday, July 28, 2006

Consumerism in Education

As an educator, I read articles on education: its current state, where it’s going, style’s of teaching, etc. Often these articles refer, derisively, to the creep of consumerism into education. The complaint is that too many students have the view that since they are paying for the class, they should get an A or more direct control over the classroom itself. In my experience there is a lot of truth to this complaint; many students do have this view.

The complaint is, however, misplaced. The consumerism of the students, per se, doesn’t bother me or strike me as problematic. After all, education is a service that is being sold. Students are buying (and consuming) this service. Indeed, I often think of myself qua teacher as an entrepreneur. Consumerism becomes problematic in education when students (and others: parents, administrators, educators, politicians, etc.) have the wrong idea of what is being consumed.

When students view their purchase as the purchase of an A or even the purchase of an ‘education’, they are misunderstanding (with partial culpability to the institutions themselves) their purchase. Educational institutions are selling access and opportunity for education; the student has to get that education himself. An analogy to personal fitness training is apt here. If Sally purchases a year of personal fitness training at her local gym, she is not buying fitness; she is buying access to a trainer who has knowledge about fitness and can direct her efforts towards her goals. She is buying the access to facilities and equipment. She is purchasing the opportunity to get herself fit. If Sally became upset because the trainer was pushing her and challenging her during her sessions or because she failed to reach her fitness goals due to her own sloth or lack of effort then Sally is seriously misplacing her disappointment.

The same applies for education. When Tommy pays tuition at an education institution he is purchasing access to experts who can direct him towards his goals (and even help him determine these goals); he is purchasing access to facilities such as libraries and research centers. He is buying the opportunity to get an education, but he has to work to achieve these goals, much like Sally has to work to achieve her fitness goals.

If more students viewed education in this way, consumerism would be a benefit to them and to educators. Paying for one’s own education provides a powerful incentive to actually do the work that will help in achieving one’s goals. Even for the more apathetic students, I think the attitude would shift from “I paid for the credits, give me the A” to “I paid for the credits, I better do something about it”. This would be similar to the experience many have after buying a gym membership: “well, I paid for the membership; I might as well make use of it”.

So what causes students to have the wrong idea about what they are buying? The causes are many. In part, I think the institutions themselves contribute to this with the way they sell their services (either to students directly or the taxpayers that are actually paying for the education) and the way they structure their institutions. I think politicians represent a college education in this way—as some consumable that needs to be distributed to each member of society. The drive to get everyone a college education means that many students at colleges don’t want to be there (at least not for the right reasons), but are there because of incentives, parental or social pressures, and the like. They are told they need to get a college diploma to get a good job and so they want a college diploma. Many student, thus, don’t want (or care about) an education; they just want the document that says they can now get a good job. In other words, they want a union card, not an education.

I am not sure how to break this attitude. But, I think a start is for educators to do a better job of setting the right expectations for students.

1 comment:

John Drake said...

Great post Shawn! I'm working on my PhD as well and see the same problems you do. In fact, I'll be forwarding this article to a number of people in academia. What you have said needs to be heard.

John Drake