Wednesday, June 1, 2011


"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Abraham Maslow

Summer session is an interesting experience. Some students
choose to take a class or two in the summer to make their regular academic year load a little easier or lighter. Some do it to try to get ahead, so maybe they can finish a semester or two early. Some take a summer class because they think it's going to be easy -- how hard can it be when it's only 5 weeks? The first two types of students generally do very well in summer courses. They are motivated, prepared and ready to work.

The last type, unfortunately, is significantly disappointed (and sometimes significantly stressed) by what they find when they enter the classroom. Summer session is not an 'easier' or 'lightweight' version of the regular course. It is the regular course -- every assignment, every quiz, every reading, every activity, every project and paper -- condensed down into a third of the time. A regular semester runs 15 weeks. Summer session runs 5. Easy, it is not.

I'm not here to debate the effectiveness of cramming a semester's worth of material into 5 weeks. There's, in my mind, really not much of an argument. I don't think it is the most effective approach. (On the other hand, I do think it is more effective than cramming the entire semester into 8 days which is an option offered at a competing institution.) I believe that most of the time, learning of any kind benefits from time for reflection and application. There is less reflection time in 5 weeks than in 15. It would be one thing if this class were ALL the students were doing. Most, however, are either taking other classes with this or working full-time, or both. The fact is, though, that the class is being offered, there are students enrolled to take it, and I have been assigned to teach it.

This is where I'm going to criticize our framework - the current 'consumer approach' to education. There has been a shift in our attitude toward education from the time when I was a student to now. A college education used to be about gaining a broad based understanding of the world, and about how to think and reason critically in order to apply that knowledge to the experiences of living in the world. Now we are constantly being told by administrators and by the public in general that "the student is the customer" and our job is to "give the customer what they want."

I disagree. I don't believe that framing education as a commodity helps us in any way. In fact, I think it harms the student and it harms the larger society. Let me use an example. I need the oil changed in my car. I go to the place where they change the oil. I give them my car. They take it away. They do the work and change the oil. I go sit in the waiting room and look at a magazine. They bring the car back - work done. I pay money. This is the consumer model. They do the work, I pay money.

When we apply this model to education, I think we all get into trouble. Many students have taken on this attitude. I paid money (tuition). You give me my commodity (a degree, preferably with an A average.) But who does the work here? We expect the student to do the work necessary to earn the A, to earn the degree. But that's not the consumer model. When I get my oil changed, I'm not down in the grease pit with a wrench and a drip pan - the mechanic is. I don't do the work - they do. So, given that model, why shouldn't a student expect that they are paying money and that they should get in return, both the work and the end product?

I think that we've gotten ourselves into this situation by going along with the momentum without critically examining where the momentum is taking us. The High School diploma used to be the credential necessary to move along in life. The idea behind compulsory education from primary school through high school was to produce a citizenry that could read and write, compute and calculate, and critically think and reason in order to be functioning productive members of a democratic society.

Somewhere along the line things changed. We've moved so far from that, that now the Bachelor's degree is the basic credential that is necessary to move along in life. The primary and high school experience seems to have become less about producing an educated citizenry and more about Heather having 2 mommies and why all choices are equally good and none should be evaluated negatively because we really all should just want to get along with each other. Our attitude towards college seems to have become less about earning an education and more about receiving a credential which is only significant because it most likely will raise your annual income by about $25,000 per year.

I'm certainly not trying to say that $25k per year isn't significant. It is. But if the sole benefit/purpose of the college experience is getting the degree in order to get the money, we shouldn't be surprised when the students buy into the consumer model.

So, maybe we need to slow down a minute and take some time for a little of that reflection that I mentioned earlier. Is this model resulting in what we want and in what is necessary for the culture to continue advancing? If it isn't, then may we all need to take a step back and examine our frame. Maybe we need to expand the contents of our toolbox.