Students: Customers, Wards, or What?

The devil stalks the University of North Carolina. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read the progressive Nation’s description of new system president Margaret Spellings. Of all the damning evidence against Spellings, perhaps the worst thing, for these progressives, is that she referred to students as “customers.” I wholeheartedly agree that good education, healthy education, shouldn’t be understood this way. But I don’t think progressives like me have come up with a better analogy. The only other likely candidate makes us even more uncomfortable.

Margaret Spellings

Sympathy for the Devil…?

Spellings has a long career in education. She has been one of the fiercest and most successful proponents of Milton Friedman’s prescriptions for better schools. If markets are allowed to do their magic, this school of thought explains, much of the dead hand of institutional lethargy will be stripped away.

In the K-12 world, market reformers have pushed vouchers, charters, and “choice,” with a lot of success. During her tenure as Education Secretary, President Spellings famously promoted a similar sort of market approach to higher education. The solutions to university blahs, the Spellings Report explained, lay in a new vision of students as “consumers,” with schools competing for their business.

“In this consumer-driven environment,” the report argued,

Students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment. . . . Instead, they care—as we do—about results.

A good college, from this perspective, is one that gives students good financial pay-back for their tuition investment. The “results” for “consumers” should be significant, in terms of higher salaries and better economic prospects for families.

Colleges, the Spellings Report insisted, need to adapt or die. If a for-profit college can deliver marketable skills better and faster, it should be encouraged, not deplored. Such law-of-the-jungle competition would push colleges in the right directions, toward “improving their efficiency.” A good higher-education system, the Spellings Report concluded, would give “Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Those of us who don’t like this vision of the proper form and function of higher education are not without alternatives. But for progressives, the primary alternative would not be an improvement.

For long centuries, colleges and universities operated on a very different model, what we might call the “family” plan. Students were not consumers, but rather more like apprentices. They entered into higher education with an understanding that they would be shaped according to the guidance of the school.

As historian Roger Geiger explained so clearly in his recent history of higher education, this system persisted much longer than did the apprentice system for young workers. Well into the nineteenth century, students had very few rights, very few choices to make.

They didn’t like it. As Geiger relates, the 1810s were a far more turbulent decade on American campuses than were the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, if today’s students at North Carolina don’t like Spellings’s consumer model, they might learn a lesson from their predecessors. In 1799, UNC students held a week-long riot, in which they captured and horsewhipped their unpopular presiding professor. (See Geiger, pp. 116-129.)

What made these students so angry? The family model of higher education insisted on draconian rules for student life, including onerous daily recitals and endless rounds of mandatory chapel services. Students did not “consume” higher education in this family model, they submitted to it.

During the 1960s, student agitation against in loco parentis rules represented a late protest—and a very successful one—against the persisting vestiges of the family model. Students demanded an end to mandatory curfews and even core curricula.

The family model never totally disappeared, of course. Indeed, today’s “safe space” protests are usually built on an implicit assumption that the university will protect and shield students, implying a continuing authoritative family relationship.

In general, though, progressive students, faculty, and administrators don’t like the family model. They don’t want to impose a set of readings or experiences for students. They want students to be empowered to design their own educational experiences, to a large degree.

But if we don’t like the old family model, and we don’t like the new consumer model, what else is there?

As usual, I don’t have answers, only more questions.

  • If we don’t want to think of college students as customers, and we’re not willing to re-impose an authoritarian system, what should we call them?
  • Put another way: If the family model is out, and the consumer model is out, what’s left?
  • What could it mean to think of students as producers, rather than consumers?
  • If the nature of consumption has changed radically in the past fifteen years with online shopping and etc., might it mean something very different these days to call students “consumers”?
  • Is there wiggle room in the consumer model? Think of the differences, for instance, between equipping someone with tested, high-quality gear for a life-long expedition and equipping them with shiny junk they really don’t need.
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1 Comment

  1. Of your choices — customers, wards, or what — I think it has to be the “or what”.

    Students don’t all come to university with the same goals. Some are looking for job preparation. Some are not at all sure what they are looking for. And some really are looking for a broader knowledge without concern as to whether that will land them a job.

    Perhaps we need more diversity among our colleges than there is. But if there is a lack of diversity, I suspect that is because our culture has expectations for a college education that are too limiting.

    Reply

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