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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Technology and Liberal Arts Education
April 10, 2011 - 12:15pm

Rather than a long, blog post on a single topic, this morning I offer some bits and pieces.

First, about the NITLE Conference held last week in Arlington and reported on in IHE on Friday, a couple of impressions.

NITLE's emphasis is shifting from technology to the meaning -- and future -- of a liberal arts education in the United States.

That impression is not to suggest that technology does not play a critical role in the discussions. As an engine of change and an ever-present, integral component of education from pre-school to life long learning, information technologies remain a phenomenon worthy of thought from every direction: as a pillar of the academic business model, disruptive of laws, social and academic norms, it inevitably shapes the experience of faculty, students and staff in a trajectory that is not always easy to predict and therefore requires persistent, self-conscious attention.

Having said that ... it is not every nor even the singular feature about the academic experience. It is therefore appropriate that NITLE, and every other association or interested party in higher education, thoughtfully consider the challenges and opportunities of its missions going forward not from, but including, the technology perspective. The core question remains the meaning, the real meaning, of higher education's missions.

Students as Customers ...

The IHE article reported that some members of the "business models" discussion group "bristled" at the notion of students as customers. I'll stand up to the statement: I said it, and I mean it. Students are students, not customers, and the minute higher education's leaders convert to the belief in the latter and not the former is the moment that we relinquish our responsibilities to them as educators.

Students are not buying a "thing," they are -- we hope -- getting an education. An education is NOT a diploma or a certification, it is a way of thinking that should -- we hope -- engender personal autonomy. Personal autonomy is the development of an intellect including the ability to acquire a specific set of marketable skills, but not limited to that so-called "tool box." Personal autonomy is the ability to think for one's self. How and in what circumstances that thinking occurs can be as traditional as writing a paper about Hamlet or designing with a team of other engineering students a computerized robot.

Personal autonomy involves the ethics of everyday life. Do I get an instructor's manual off of the campus intranet when I am too tired to work through a homework problem set? Do I report what might be a date rape when I see my very inebriated friend go upstairs with a guy whom she does not know at a frat party? Do I cheat on my taxes? Do I cheat on my partner? Do I confess the transgression and attempt to do better? The list, like life, goes on. Do I speak truth to power?

The ability to recognize these questions as involving ethics, implicating one's own agency at every level, and accepting as inevitable the fact that actions have consequences is the process of personal autonomy that gives meaning to the idea of thinking for one's self that is the core definition of an education. A liberal arts education.

That quality cannot be bought and sold. It is not a commodity. It is an obligation of an educator to endeavor to their fullest in whatever capacity they are in within the enterprise to impart that meaningful education to a student. To think of a student as someone to whom we are "selling" something is to minimized and demean him or her. It demeans the educator as well. Does that statement in turn suggest that students should have no voice in their education? How could that counterargument be the case when the definition of an education is to think for one's self and speak truth to power?

At the root of this mistaken concept of student as customer is the failure to recognize education as a public good. Social policy purposefully does not intend that a public good be bought and sold, that is why the law recognizes not for profit entities such as is mainstream, liberal arts institutions. I do not follow the debates in Congress over funding for profit education. I have not kept up with Department of Education's investigations of that industry. I get it, however. Mainstream not for profit higher education has weaknesses that for profit businesses want to exploit. While some people might get richer, we will all be the poorer if we, American society, capitulate the ideal and institutions of not for profit education to the for profit sector. Could Marx, with all of his misconceptions and Utopian fantasies, be right on this one: an unfettered free market turns everyone and everything into a commodity?

If by raising the specter of student as a customer the underlying message is that higher education is reaping what it has sowed in imitating and modeling and acculturating too much to the market work, then let us praise those who have brought this mistake and these failings to our doorstep for redress. I apologize deeply to those students whose educational experience has led them to think of themselves in this light. I am speaking up for you now and ask colleagues in higher education to pledge in the name of our missions to end this reckless notion of student as customer in an effort to revive a truer meaning of education in our work ... beginning with a renewal of the exciting, effervescent notion of being a student.


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