A Person is a Student is a Customer is a Product is a Thing

Ever wonder why universities have marketing departments? Marketing is a tool for profit maximization. Marketing is what you do when you need to increase your target segment, not when your organization, by its nature, sends potential clients away every year. Ever notice how fiercely universities are engaged in brand management? There are special colors and mascots and logos. If you want a great example of consistent branding across platforms, look at a university’s website and collection of apps.

Which brand’s your favorite, Oregon?

We’ve embraced the business model, perhaps by necessity, but what are the costs? Leonard Cassuto explores a hidden effect of this trend to treat education like a business in his recent article. Cassuto points out that by arranging course offerings according to the special interests of faculty members, hoping to offer a variety of options in the educational market that students as consumers can select from, we have fallen into a teacher-centered rather than a student-centered mindset.This is a strange paradox since so much of our pedagogy is oriented toward student-centered teaching. We’ve roundly rejected the banking model, and yet our system caters more to a professor’s interests than student needs.

Now, I don’t mean this as an indictment against the market or against our fellow educators in management studies. We can learn much through interdisciplinary research together. Adrianna Kezar has a great application of our understanding of organizational change to higher education. And Joseph Schumpeter, the father of our modern concept of innovation, summed up his life’s work in this way:

I have now reached the age where I know that it is not enough to be remembered for books and theories. One does not make a difference unless it is a difference in people’s lives. (Source)

At the same time, treating education as a commodity subtly warps our understanding of it. No longer is it a mutual process of discovery, but something purchased and delivered. This leads to internal contradictions. How do you grade a client who paid for a service? How do you nudge clients to work harder in developing the product that puts them in debt?

This is my greatest struggle as an educator and as a student. I may be uncomfortable with commodification, but as a student, I am a product of it. How am I thinking when I pay a bill to the university or when I fill out evaluations of my instructors? As a client. It’s deep in there. Whenever I feel frustrated with a class, it’s really due to an underlying assumption that I’m a consumer rather than a colleague engaged in the great tradition of education. How can I make sure I don’t perpetuate this as an instructor? I’m still working that out.

Our statement on professional ethics, adopted by the American Association of University Professors, moves towards a model. Right away, it focuses on the dignity of knowledge and truth:

Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it.

Yes! This is wonderful! But is that really the priority? Is that really how our system works? I full-heartedly support this conviction, but I can’t help but think that it is undercut by the marketing model.

The statement moves on to how we should treat our students:

As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors.

Yes! We should treat our students with this high ideal of respect, but I wonder if we’re actually treating our students like Crakers.

bosch oryx and crake (800x455)
John Gall’s cover art with the left panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights

In Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, the Crakers are human/animal chimeras named after their maker, Crake. These Crakers are, in a sense the perfect symbol for our humanity understood in terms of product development. They were designed for specific functions to meet market needs. When Crake describes them, he sounds just like a product manager letting the marketing organization know about his new innovation:

Crake showed Jimmy a large one-way mirror. Behind it were shrubs and a blue sky. It was the first time that Jimmy saw the Crakers. He admired their beauty, turned to Crake, and asked if they were robots. Crake said that they were the equivalent of floor models at a furniture store.

Behind the complaints about universities running like businesses and students being treated like customers, there’s something much more sinister. When we talk about preparing students for the workforce, we’re really just saying that we’re making a shiny new product for corporations. Even when we talk about forming students to be good citizens for society, we’re really just saying that society is our client and students are the product.

Students are the product?

I just can’t stomach this.

Even the noble and democratic view of education, producing conscientious citizens, is a form of commodification. Are they then just “floor models” for society? Should we just get to window shop what we want later generations to be like, to think like? Is it my job to make something shiny and docile for society or is it to guide and counsel human persons?

Let’s put that aside for a moment and look back at the Crakers. Their maker may describe them as “floor models,” but that is not how they are introduced. We are first introduced to the Crakers as curious children through Snowman/Jimmy.

On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children are walking… The children scan the terrain, stoop, pick up flotsam; then they deliberate among themselves, keeping some items, discarding others; their treasures go into a torn sack. Sooner or later — he can count on it — they’ll seek him out where he sits…Opening up their sack, the children chorus, “Snowman, what have we found?”

In this, there may be an undoing of the commodification and a weakening of the possibility of commodification in itself. The Crakers were designed to be sold, and now they are living peaceably amidst the ruin of their marketers. They were designed to “have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods or money.” However, they don’t seem to be completely devoid of a culture or symbolism: Snowman will “become a secondary player in their mythology, such as it is—a sort of backup demiurge. He’ll be falsely remembered. He won’t be mourned.” They are more than “floor models, in furniture stores.” Likewise, the underlying problem with patenting human generation or making human/animal chimeras, or even in turning education into a business, is that we can’t be reduced to “floor models” either.

We have an identity crisis in higher education. We enter it with nearly religious ideals that our students are co-workers in the same vineyard of knowledge. But we act as though they are clients who need to be wooed, or worse, as this comic playfully points out, as products that we are developing.

However. And that’s a big HOWEVER. No matter what we do, no matter how we let our culture slip into the marketing model, humans can’t possibly be products. It’s never possible. Dignity is a constant regardless of perception. Nothing, and I mean that in an absolute sense, can change that.

So be counselors, be guides, “encourage the free pursuit of learning” in your students. It doesn’t matter anymore what Crake did or what Crake thinks. Human nature can’t be cowed by his plans. Be Snowman, meet the Crakers on the shore, and tell them the names of the things they’ve found.

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