The Problems with the Student-Consumer Model of Education, Part 2

Kevin Joffre

The Problems with the Student-Consumer Model of Education, Part 2

In my last column, I talked about how students who operate under the consumerist model of education tend to view college in terms of enjoyment. As a result, they by and large select professors who provide the best experience and not necessarily the highest level of learning. In addition to the “virtue of enjoyment,” students have a second consumerist goal for their education: practicality.

Students want to be sure that their time in college will get them a job. We can see this most clearly in the way that students approach knowledge. In the consumerist model of education, knowledge is useful because it provides you with enough information to be able to complete a task efficiently. For example, learning anatomy is important because it helps you become proficient at practicing surgery, and surgery is important because it’s a skill that will allow you to make money and live comfortably. Similarly, writing is a valuable skill because it allows you to express yourself effectively, which is necessary in job interviews, email correspondence, and business deals.

On the other hand, from a liberal arts perspective, knowledge is valuable because it satisfies an individual’s innate desire to learn. By taking classes in a wide variety of fields, students are able to see how various bodies of knowledge influence each other. Knowledge is valuable for its own sake. Anatomy is worthwhile because it helps you understand how your body works, and writing is important because it allows you to enter into a dialogue with thinkers from the past.

Clearly, most students are more interested in the practical applications of knowledge. General education classes serve as an obstacle to getting a degree, graduating, and applying for jobs. Consequently, liberal arts institutions can no longer assume that people who attend college have any love for knowledge (a statement that, if uttered a century ago, would appear to be a paradox). As a result, colleges have changed the way they operate to match this consumerist expectation. For example, GVSU recently switched from requiring three Theme classes to two Issues classes, reducing the number of general education requirements and streamlining the path through college. Most students are probably thankful for this money-saving policy change, but it serves as a demonstration of the way that the practicality of the consumerist model tends to win out over the traditional liberal arts mindset. Because of these imported consumerist mindset, liberal arts universities bear the responsibility to instill the value of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” in students.

And, truly, college is the only environment in which this mindset is promoted. As anyone who holds a full-time job can attest to, working doesn’t give you an inordinate amount of time or resources for reflection on culture, power, truth, and justice. Now, that doesn’t mean that people can’t find a liberal arts education at work, at home, or in a book; it just means that they have to do this of their own volition. Universities are the last holdout of a social standard of liberal education.

Now, because students largely don’t want a liberal arts education, universities have tried to convince them by making general education courses a requirement. This demonstrates the belief that if students formally partake in liberal arts classes, they will eventually see the intrinsic value in studying bodies of knowledge outside their major. For example, if students take a general education class in linguistics, they will see the power of language in their everyday lives. Perhaps that’s true. But it seems to me that even this approach isolates student interest to particular bodies of knowledge, rather than letting them generalize their experiences. Students may now see how language plays a role in their lives, but still hold that chemistry is useless. Furthermore, this approach suggests that students can only be wooed to a liberal arts experience if the professor can prove that the knowledge is applicable to their lives. Knowledge that is not directly relatable to their life experience is not worth knowing. This perspective is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

And that is, perhaps, the contemporary question for the liberal arts education: is it possible for a university to promote a love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?