April 15th, 2010

The Market Metaphor


I remember the first time something in the newsletter generated all kinds of reader response … well, the very first time was when I used “criteria” when I should have written “criterion”, but the first response to substance involved an article suggesting that higher education ought to be run more like a business. The response was overwhelmingly negative—some of it thoughtful, a lot of it visceral. It is a metaphor that still rankles and does not do justice, given the aims and purposes of higher education. But as Robert H. Knapp, Jr. points out, the metaphor does highlight some comparisons to which educators should attend.

“If a student goes to college and encounters a string of impersonal regulations, weakly produced lectures or classes, unexplained delays or additional required activities, arbitrary-seeming evaluations, and so on—and we all know this can happen to students—it is not suprising for people to think that no business would dare treat its customers that way. …” (p. 420)

“Not only are business categories readily available, but in situations like this, they address legitimate needs. The market metaphor can point toward needed reforms, and can mobilize energy for carrying them out. I believe that many faculty members, and in effect many colleges and universities, have indeed been self-satisfied and willful in relation to their students in important ways over the past years—especially, I would say in abdicating the need for education to speak to whole lives and not just be a special kind of car people get out of the garage once in a while and drive around in.” (p. 420)

“Good educational thinking these days needs to address student experience as it has been and should be. The market metaphor cannot, however, do the job reliably. Despite its ability to mobilize attention to undoubted problems, it is flawed and wrongheaded in the direction it points.” (p. 420)

Knapp proposes an interesting alternative which I’ll share in the next entry.

Reference: Knapp, Jr., R. H. Joining the conversation: An essay in guiding images for college teaching and learning. In B. L. Smith and J. McCann, eds., Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education. Bolton, Mass.: Anker, 2001.