In the ongoing conversation in Texas about higher education, David Guenther, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, recently asked a question that has shot up to the top of my list of Clueless Quotations, knocking Paris Hilton off a pedestal she has proudly stood on for well over a year.
Guenther developed the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Strengthening Higher Education." (Think of this as the Humpty Dumpty Theory to Improve Higher Education: or, let's break it into little bitty pieces and see if we can put it back together again. Referred to in some circles as the Bernie Maddoff Scheme of Higher Eduction.) In response, a University of Texas report complained that the Seven Solutions "over-emphasize the student's role as a ‘customer' at the expense of the more vital role of ‘learner.' ... The higher education experience is not akin to shopping on iTunes or visiting Banana Republic." (Who knew people who wear tweed jackets could manage sarcasm so readily?)
Here's where David Guenther wins his award: In response to the UT report, he asked "If students aren't the customers of the university, who are?"
David, David, David. Please, think about the consequences that follow from the idea that the student is a "customer." First, we all know that "The customer is always right." Anyone who has ever graded a multiple choice test knows that this simply isn't true. I admit, it's possible Guenther is thinking of that other well-known cliché: "Customer beware." The more I consider the possibility, the more I think that may be exactly how he's thinking. After all, the Seven Solutions people are sure we can offer a degree for $10K (including textbooks) that will compete with Harvard and the Chicago Institute of Technology.
Small fry like SMU, TCU, and Rice might as well shut their doors, since no one will be interested in what they have to offer when UT and A&M revamp their program according to the Seven Solutions. (I guess we'll have to close down all the community colleges as well, since UT and A&M will basically be taking over their role.) Anyone who buys into the Seven Solutions 10K and here's your Diploma, might remind themselves, however, of several other clichés that are clichés because they're true: "You get what you pay for"; and, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
To give Guenther his due, he's probably thinking that the student is paying for a service, and is thus a customer. We might, however, ask what the student is actually purchasing. We might even ask the student. If, in fact, you were to ask the average class of college freshman, you'd find that they are interested in one thing, a degree. Those students are not actually interested in an education, per se. They'd be more than willing to pay their full four-year tuition at the registrar's office, drive around to the drive-up commencement window and pick up their diploma, head out to a good paying job, and skip the whole education thing.
I know this sounds cynical, both of me and the students. But it's not the students fault. From Pre-K to 12th grade every teacher, counselor, and parent, has been pounding one message into their heads: If you don't get a college degree you will end up in a McJob for the rest of your life. Is it any wonder they come running scared to college, not to get an education, but to keep from spending the rest of their lives repeating, "Would you like to super size that?" In other words, our problem didn't start with Guenther. We've been treating education as a commercial transaction for so long that we've brainwashed our kids and ourselves into believing that that's all it is.
As the UT report so succinctly pointed out, "customer" doesn't work as a metaphor in education. There are no customers. Nonprofits have been using the term "stakeholder" for years to indicate that there are good reasons for a score of individuals and groups to work together for the well being of the community. While stakeholder suits the student better than does customer, I'm not entirely satisfied with it either.
I'm okay with "student." Or even better, "scholar." That term harks back to the admittedly old fashioned idea of liberal education that Thomas Jefferson first laid out when he established the University of Virginia. He thought that a democracy could only thrive with an educated citizenry. As outdated as that ideal is, it makes sense. Cost-efficient? Probably not. A little messy at times? Most certainly. But then, so is democracy. (There's no customer in democracy either, Guenther.)
I certainly admit, even expect, a citizen should be able to contribute to the economic welfare of the community. But a citizen does so much more. A customer invests in his or her own well-being; a citizen is invested in the community. A customer pays and leaves; a citizen continues to contribute long after services are rendered, in other words. A customer is a passive recipient of services; a citizen participates, with the full knowledge that a democracy requires much more than prompt student loan payments.