Monday, August 08, 2011

Choice, Consumerism and Education

One of the many online services to which I subscribe is eschool news. It’s predominately a propaganda site for the deadly duo of corporate imperatives and technocrats that increasingly dominate higher education. I read the items there because it gives me insights as to how the folks driving academia these days (some might say directly into the ground) are thinking about various aspects of education. Occasionally they run a story worth serious consideration.

Today’s edition brought a rather encouraging article which allowed teachers to respond to what the article called the Ten Myths about Teaching as well as a rather mindless consumerist piece entitled The Five Things Students Say They Want From Education.

Frankly, I was shocked to see the first article on a site which habitually bashes teachers unions and sings the praises of technology in education. But the second article quickly reassured me that eschool news had not become too serious about education, offering up a rather thoughtless consumerist, corporate interest polemic with the usual business model fetishized construction of choice cast strictly in individual consumerist terms. While I don’t know that my response will actually be published there, I offer it below for whomever might actually read and consider my views on the subjects raised.

To wit:

There are a lot of unexamined presumptions in this article. Here’s one:

"And while it’s important to note what businesses would like to see in their future employees, at the end of the day it really comes down to the students themselves."

This seems to presume that schools are somehow driven by business imperatives. Why would that be so? Why would we presume that the imperatives of educational institutions are somehow synonymous with those of corporations narrowly defined by concern for profit? Might education entail a much broader set of imperatives? Might future citizens need to learn about a broader set of concerns?

This also seems to presume that students are consumers who, like at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, may not always be right but they’re always the guest. Why would that be so? Why would we presume that students necessarily know what needs to be taught in schools and colleges? Do we presume that patients know how their surgery should be conducted prior to visiting their physicians? Moreover, do schools have no more concerns than satisfying individual customers? Are there no larger imperatives that drive public education, such as insuring an educated public for purposes of citizenship in an increasingly diverse society?

Here’s another:

“The one thing that students want most in school can be summed up in one word: Choice.”

The ability to choose is one of the privileges of human beings that reflect a respect for human dignity. Informed choice is generally a component of a healthy society. But choice considered as an ultimate value, regardless of whether it is informed or not, is misguided and potentially dangerous.

Most students choose subjects that they know will offer them little challenge. The verbally gifted student might well avoid the math classes they need to function in a technologically sophisticated culture. And most future STEM majors will avoid anything that requires them to express their thought in written or verbal form like the plague. Most students will not take foreign languages unless required to do so even as the internet and international business has rendered national boundaries and cultural barriers increasingly meaningless.

A high school sophomore might want nothing but cake to eat at lunch time. But that doesn’t mean school cafeterias should be made unquestioning satisfiers of such thoughtless choice.

Finally, this one:

“Most often heard from students: ‘Why do I need to know this?’”

It’s a fair question. Teachers and professors should be able to offer some explanation as to why they teach what they teach in the manner in which they teach it. If nothing else, this question ought to prompt mindfulness among educators as to their daily enterprise.

On the other hand, the question presumes that the student raising it will necessarily be able to comprehend and appreciate the answer. In fact, far too often, without life experience to know first hand why math skills, foreign languages and the ability to express oneself effectively if not eloquently are important, students often cannot appreciate the answers they are given and simply dismiss the class as a burden imposed upon them.

The reality is that the enterprise of education is poorly served when reductionist thought is used to consider it. Student desires are not the final word in education, they are simply one of the many considerations. Similarly, business imperatives are not the ultimate values for educational
curricula and pedagogy, they are simply one of the many values brought to bear upon the educational process. Students are one segment of our culture. Business is one segment of our society. Their interests are important but they do not subsume the rest of the culture and society
of which they are a part. And we serve our students poorly when we operate out of such indefensible presumptions.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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