It is rare when I find myself in agreement with Stanley Fish. But I think in his most recent column, I think that he finds such an unalienable truth among teachers that it is impossible, as someone interested in teaching, to disagree with. In his column, he discusses how disasterous a proposed Texas plan for higher education would be, if enacted, for the education of students.
No, it's not the Texas plan to teach elementary and high school students that Phyllis Schlafly is the second coming of George Washington. No, this plan involves the state's universities, particularly Texas A&M. Essentially, the plan wholeheartedly embraces the idea that students are, first and foremost, consumers and should be treated as such.
Fish goes on at some length about why this is such a bad idea. The value of an education is not the same as that of a new car, a television, or -- as he notes -- a hamburger. These are things meant to be enjoyed in the moment for their immediate value. And, given the extraordinary rise of both consumer credit debt and obesity, we have been thinking of ourselves too much as consumers.
Instead, education is an investment. Smart investors don't go after the sexy new thing on the stock market; they pursue long-term goals. If they bought and sold based on their happiness with each stock on any given day, then most would do disastrously and lose all of their money. Students, as Fish points out, often don't find the value in what they were taught until years, sometimes decades, later.
What also gets my goat is that the same conservative think tanks that are promoting this idea are the same ones that oppose pity promotions. Students need to earn their grades -- as long as they are enjoying it. It is virtually impossible to simultaneously do both well.
By some miraculous coincidence, this week I was catching up on This American Life podcasts that I had missed. One episode, called "Save the Day" had a story by Nancy Updike about a college in Alabama with an event called the "Life Raft Debate." The premise is simple, there is some horrible apocalyptic event and only the people in the auditorium survive and there is enough room on the life raft for one professor. Several professors have five minutes to make a case that their academic discipline is the one that is needed. Then, there is the "Devil's Advocate" that argues that none should be saved. The students in the auditorium vote at the end of the presentations to decide.
Partial Spoiler Alert In the story, the debate becomes totally debased; professors compete by trying to create entertaining skits for the students in the audience. They are sometimes elaborate, sometimes weak, but all of them aim to entertain rather than argue. The debate, designed to elaborate on the values of a liberal arts education, has -- just as Fish rightly predicts will happen by using teaching evaluations -- turned into a show designed to entertain rather than teach. There is no educational value left in the debate. I don't want to ruin the show too much, but you should definitely listen to it (this story starts about 42.5 minutes in) to find out what happens when the Devil's Advocate speaks (who, amazingly enough, is an untenured faculty member).
Let me just say, students like to be challenged when they do not expect to be pandered to.