Idol Worship

Today’s online Chronicle of Higher Education had an article about the chancellor of Texas A & M’s idea to give faculty members bonuses of up to $10,000, but there’s a catch: They’re based on student evaluations. As he put it, “This is customer satisfaction. It doesn’t have to do with tenure, promotion, status. It has to do with students’ having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.” It’s hard to know where to begin with such a ridiculous concept, although it’s certainly not the first time “students” have been transformed into “customers” and “professors” into “salesmen” or, rather, “monkeys,” who simply need to know how to perform to win the approbation of their audience.

Here’s another instance where the collapse of linguistic categories does more harm than good. In the academic world, a “student” is someone who agrees to be taught by and learn from someone who has more knowledge, experience, and understanding of a subject than the student does. In the course of this interaction, there may be difficulties, false starts, and other thorny issues that impede the way to understanding. In fact, in good education that’s more likely than not to be the case. Our expectation is that the professor is a knowledgeable and compassionate person who helps the student through those difficulties with clear explanations, engaged discussion, and all the other things that make good teachers.

A “customer,” however, is someone in an extremely different relationship with a person or institution. The “customer” wishes to purchase something, and for some unit of exchange, the “seller” is willing to give it to him. No other interaction is expected except that the “customer” get what he pays for, whether it’s a car, a watch, or a houseboat. The “customer’s” satisfaction is based on how well the product lives up to its billing. (When I ride the CTA here in Chicago I cringe a bit every time I’m called a “customer” instead of a “passenger.” The latter has a dignity that is lost when I’m treated simply as a source of $2.25 per trip.) It’s a simple quid pro quo, not a lengthy interaction.

A “customer”-based relationship is really impossible in any but the most basic teaching situations, such as when someone pays for an insurance licensing course: You get the rules, you learn them, you take the test. But even that depends on your own abilities, motivation, and outlook. Students are not passive receptacles just needing to be filled with inert facts, and whatever happens in a classroom can have radically different effects on them. A particularly rigid yet wildly knowledgeable professor can be excruciating during a course but fondly remembered for inspiring students to hold high standards; a hip, chatty, and easy-to-please professor can be a pal, but often not a memorable teacher. And the same professor can be a literary lion to some and a turgid windbag to others.

The teacher/student relationship embodies complexities that are all stripped away in this lame attempt to become the Wal-Mart of universities. Putting professors at the mercy of student satisfaction guarantees that teaching will get worse and students will feel more entitled to get what they want, not what they should have. Peter Sacks wrote a book a while ago about his experience with this sort of thing called Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Open Court). In it he chronicles how he turned his low student evaluations into high marks by slacking off the tough grading, lowering his demands, and generally playing to the crowd, thus reaping the rewards that came with them at the institution he worked at. It’s a depressing read, but while it may say something about Generation X, I think it says even more about the inverted structure of the teacher/student relationship, the “seller”/”customer” model of education, if you will.

The Texas A & M chancellor has divorced this scheme from anything to do with scholarly effort. But it also reflects a shift in child rearing and studenthood that has been going on for some time and that upends the traditional hierarchy. Where once parents and professors were authorities at the top helping to mold and educate feral and ignorant children, who had to learn and sometimes struggle for entry into society or the world of educated persons, now children and students are the golden calves who are revered for just being themselves, no matter how wild or insipid they may be. If they’re lazy and ignorant, well, professors will just have to go with that because they’ve been taught all their lives that it’s just who they are. And parents have spent countless hours making sure that nothing will spoil junior’s day, so you’d better not, either, Ms. Professor.

This is not to say that every student would react as a “customer” at Texas A & M. I’m sure there will be many who take the enterprise seriously and evaluate professors based not on their willingness to give As or let homework slide, perhaps, but on their high expectations and low tolerance for stupidity. There may be some who relish the idea that their teachers won’t put up with nonsense in class or in a paper. But even that insight may not come right away. It may be only years later that a student is thankful that Professor Hardgrade made him rewrite a paper four times before accepting it. Will there be a retroactive evaluation and bonus in that case?

Mr. McKinney’s thuddingly ignorant take on the student/teacher transaction should be swept into the dustbin of history (will Texas students know that reference? And who will teach it to them?). He should not turn Texas A & M students into “customers” because that makes his professors simply performers grasping for shiny pennies. The idea is an insult to everyone involved in education.