Universities, McDonald's, and Suck-It-Up-Atine nutrition

A university is not McDonald's.

I should clarify that.

Some of you will think that's a ridiculous statement. Of course we're not McDonald's. We are, indeed, in the business of training people to be on the other side of the counter than the one they might occupy without the university in their lives. McDonald's is an un-nutritious, quick-fix, fast-stop solution bound to lead to obesity, heart disease, and intestinal distress.

Some others are likely saying that the university is indeed like McDonald's. Our kids drive through, pick a major from our menu, and try to get in and out as quickly as possible without laying out much effort (or cash) for something that is "good enough." understandably, most want a college education because of the career paths it opens, and that's a fine enough reason.

Both camps have a point. I'd like to make mine: administrators and educators who encourage this fast-food approach in the name of "incorporating business principles into education" are doing us all a disservice. If you simply look at the bottom line, you'll increase revenue and decrease the quality of the product you put out. The fundamental difference between education and business is that, in education, we are supposed to be primarily concerned with quality. This is fast a dying sentiment from those who aren't on the front lines with students. Even the ivory tower has levels. Those of us closest to the students see how the folks at the top get so concerned about paperwork that they forget about the actual living, breathing (and, lest we forget, drinking) student body. They remember we *have* students. How else, of course, would we generate tuition dollars? The problem is that they think of students as abstractions, and not actual, fleshly, unwashed teenagers.

"Have it your way" is the motto of Burger King. It should not be the motto of any institution of higher education that wants respect. (At least, my respect.) How can you encourage students to "have it their way" when they don't have enough education, experience, or training to know what the best way is? At best, it is a blatant move to woo "consumers" as opposed to students, begging for the almighty buck from young people who have been catered to their entire lives by an education system that is designed to move them through, assembly-line style, as quickly and efficiently as possible. The entire point of an undergraduate education is to make people uncomfortable - discomfort forces you to learn, grow, and stretch. Giving it to them "their way" means providing a comforting, un-challenging education.

I am not claiming that we should not take what the students want into account when we develop services and educational models. If students can help us design educational tools that are more fun, they're more likely to engage, enjoy the learning enterprise and succeed. However, this new push to give away the farm and do away with everything students don't like is too much. Some parts of college are going to suck. Heading to your early morning class reeking of hangover, flubbing an exam because you broke up with your boy/girlfriend and spent the night earning a neon tan instead of memorizing the microeconomics charts, and dealing with gen ed requirements you're convinced you'll never need are essential life lessons.

In the real world, you don't get to go to your boss and claim that you don't want to do something because, well, you'd rather not. "It's boring," "I don't find this engaging," and "but I did the same thing yesterday" are excuses that don't hold water in the Wide World of Work - the sort of WWW we don't address much in education. College life is where you learn to take big old gulps of Suck-It-up-Atine and keep it down. Students do not get to customize their education "order" to remove the educational parts. Sometimes they'll have to deal with the fact that 1.0 technology, and even 0.0 human-delivered lectures (*gasp!*), and having to read an actual, occasionally dull, textbook are the best ways to convey information. This is not to say that their experience won't be interactive and rewarding, just that attempting to make it *all* fun, games, and Facebooky-goodness does our students - and their future employers - a great disservice. Reading technical manuals at a job isn't fun, but it occasionally has to be done.

What we've done by acquiescing to the demand for all-fun all-the-time in education is artificially generated an ADD workforce. If it's not fun and interesting, they don't want to do it, and it comes across in their body language, their attitudes, and occasionally, their Facebook and MySpace profiles, and blogs (which they never remember that employers read). By giving in to the demand that education be a playground, we've stopped developing the most useful skills in our students: persistence and perseverance. If something gets difficult, they quit. No wonder the statistic is that people change careers something like eight times over a lifetime. That's not *jobs*, now - you're expected to change jobs as you move up the ladder and develop your skillset. We're talking complete career changes.

In an atmosphere where students never "fail," where mediocrity is encouraged so that no one feels like they are "less," where the K-12 system does their best to make sure that no one's self-esteem gets trampled and education has become secondary to fostering a feel-good sense of entitlement, catering to student whims without pedagogical soundness behind our decisions is more than ridiculous. It's harmful. If we continue this trend at the university level, we devalue American education as a whole - disturbing, since college is getting more expensive as we challenge students less.

Which is why I'm suspicious of ye olde academic administrators who claim that students are our customers, and we shall serve them what they wish. These are young people who are, usually for the first time, allowed to have ice cream for dinner, stay out as long as they wish, and many are having their first experiences with alcohol and various other foreign substances, including rigorous academic standards. They are no more qualified to tell you what they should learn than a four year old is qualified to tell you what a nutritious dinner is. Want to work on a customer-centered education? Start polling businesses, who are less and less impressed with the far-removed-from-reality education students receive.

I've been in school a long time. College was 1997-2001. Grad School #1 was 2001-2003. Grad School #2 was from 2003-2006. Grad School #3 and #4 were 2007-current. I've also worked in higher education since 2004. I've seen the wide variety of teaching styles and administrative takes on education and its delivery, and the attitude towards student input. The most successful always provided an avenue for student input...but they didn't hand over the steering wheel, nor did they argue in defense of the almighty dollar.

I post this not as a response to my own institution (where we actually evaluate the impact of services and such on education before and during implementation, and are willing to trash anything that's all bells-and-whistles and no substance), but in response to the disturbing trend of those who would hand the reins of education to eighteen year olds. If you don't trust your teachers and your system to produce quality thinkers, if you worry more about the bottom line than about the worth of the degree you churn out, if you jump on the bandwagon of fad-tastic trends just to catch the eye of prospective students, please do not come to my university. In fact, please get the heck out of education and go into private consulting. You'll make more money, and you won't damage the future as much.

My Twitter-pal Rudilibrarian posted a much more elegant argument on this topic that is specifically library-related, available here. I wholeheartedly agree.

This blog refers to me as Guardienne of the Tomes, but in addition to books, I like to think of myself as the Protectress of Common Sense, of decency, and of quality education. And while I believe that education comes in many flavors, many of them pleasant, I also believe that you have to eat the occasional brussels sprout of an assignment, because it's good for you, and wash it down with Suck-It-Up-Atine, because you need to get accustomed to the flavor before you can consider yourself qualified in today's workforce.I went into librarianship and higher education to eradicate ignorance, not put it on a pedestal and glamorize it.



rudibrarian said…
As always, you said this better than I could have! And I think I'm kind of in love with where you work ;)

But now I have to go stare at something else for a while -- long posts on black background make me see vibrating stripes! (does that mean I am old?)
Colleen said…
*grin* I am definitely in love with where I work, and with my colleagues. You know, in a non-creepy, library-pal kind of way, not a leaving-love-notes-on-your-chair-while-your-office-was-locked kind of way.

Hmmm...maybe that means I should change my template. I find it less glarey than dark print on light background.

The Guardienne is now taking color scheme suggestions from the blogger templates, because the Guardienne is too busy to learn to do anything but the most basic html programming. Hm, perhaps the parchment look?
So would it be fair to compare education to a Wendy's combo meal? You get some choice (fries, chili or baked potato) but you have to stick with the basic formula of sandwich (major), side (minor), and drink (electives). You learn to exercise some creativity while also realizing that if you're the asshole who holds up the line with special orders and asking for just a dab of mustard but not too much, people behind you will jeer and the counter guy will spit in your food.
Also, B. said he would like to share this with his students. :-)
Colleen said…
Tell B. he may do so with my blessing- and may it knock some sense into their pretty little heads!

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