Students Are Our Customers!

If you work in higher education, perhaps you’ve heard someone in administration say that: “Students are our customers!” Since I don’t see education as a commodity, I’m disinclined to interpret it through the lens of a business metaphor. I also don’t want to reduce students to customers, consumers of a product we offer.

At the same time, I want students to have a good experience. I am treating them just as badly when I reduce them to funding sources, either from their own wallets, their parents’ wallets, or as attractors of government funds, as when I reduce them to customers.

At its best, the business model that treats students as customers recognizes that they are paying and that they have choices. They could go elsewhere. If I’m their teacher – and I want to keep a job in teaching – it’s to my advantage to keep them at my institution, particularly paying at my institution. But if I think of them primarily as my customers, I might lapse further into another mantra: “The customer is always right.” Since the customer is (indirectly) paying my salary, I want to keep the student happy. What does it take to make a student happy? Easy classes? Not too much homework? Open book tests? Frequently canceled class sessions? At some point, as we follow this way, we can imagine that the happiest student is the one who goes to class the least.

Contrary to the “student as customer” model, students don’t know what they want: certainly not in the way I know what I want when I go into a hamburger restaurant. Part of my job as teacher is to teach discernment, to help students learn what they ought to want if they want to become a participant in my discipline (or, in general education courses, what they ought to want if they want to become an intelligent participant in our culture).

Now it may be that few students come to college these days wanting either to become a participant in a discipline or an intelligent participant in our culture. In the first place, they’ve not been encouraged to think in terms of disciplines. Discipline, as they’ve experienced, it usually a bad experience. It’s something like corporal punishment, suspension, exclusion from fun: who wants more of that. They don’t want to join a discipline, they want a job, something that will insure them an income. Most also don’t think of becoming intelligent participants in our culture. They already know they’re intelligent, having received so much affirmation along the way to this point. And where does intelligence come in to the equation? Culture is merely an assortment of opinions. I have my opinions, you have your opinions – everyone has their own opinions. Participation in culture and evaluation of culture, are matters of opinion, matters of the exercise of will, not matters amenable to exercise of intellect.

So we have much to do. We not only have to educate students, but we have to reform the notion of what an education is for and why anyone would want one. The government isn’t much help here. In their demands for increasing accountability they seem to have reached the popular conclusion that education is all about job and income potential. So as teachers we have to impart the content and skills peculiar to our disciplines, but also an understanding of education itself that cuts against the grain of the broader culture. This also requires that students not only gain understanding, but also new desires. Instead of only satisfying their built-in and culture-approved desires for success and fun, we have to impart a desire for a real education.

In this view of education I am accountable not only to the institution that pays me, and not only to the students who sit in my classes (and give their money to the school). I am also accountable to my discipline, to produce students are knowledgeable, competent, and willing participants in our tradition of inquiry. If my own experience as a student is an indication, my students today might not even perceive that there is such a thing as a tradition of inquiry and a gain a concept that faithfulness to that tradition might be possible until they have already progressed quite a way into it. As it stands, I value my students, my institution, and my discipline enough to keep at it, even when various expressions of these think I’m nuts.

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