Student evaluations promote consumerism

Professor Lyell Asher, an associate professor of English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, recently noted the increasing use and misuse of student evaluations to rate professors.

He has identified a problem in this consumer-oriented society: our increasing tendency to regard ourselves as customers. The natural corollary is for us to assume both the right and the competency to evaluate goods and services and their providers.

Students, parents and taxpayers pay tens of thousands of dollars for a college education. Student and parents increasingly tend to think of themselves as customers, entitled to pass judgment on the quality of the education received. The most convenient tool for this appraisal is the student evaluation form.

Unfortunately, the student-as-customer notion is built on a faulty premise.

When we retain the services of an attorney to draft a will, a plumber to unclog our pipes, or a surgeon to heal our wounds, we trust the person performing the service and normally take no active role in the service’s actual performance. When completed, we may have an opinion on the quality of the work or the service provider. But we are never quizzed, tested or graded by the service provider. We simply pay the bill.

Students are not customers because students must take an active role in class room activities [the provided service], and students are evaluated by the instructor on how well the information has been absorbed.

There is another view of the educational process, a perspective that critics label “corporatist” and “dehumanizing.” In this view, students are the raw material inserted into an educational process. The instructor’s job is to infuse the student with new information and help mold critical thinking.

What hopefully emerges from this process is an educated person who will hopefully be of value to the process’s ultimate “customer,” viz a viz, the organization that hires the new graduate.

Much time and energy are spent on discerning what future employers look for in college graduates. Curricula can be and are adjusted to fit these expectations.

Employers today are searching for the graduate— the “finished product,” if you will— who possesses both technical ability and a well-rounded education. The former is needed so the new employee can be of immediate value to the employer. The latter is needed so that the employee can communicate his or her expertise to those not well versed in the employee’s specific background.

This is why a first-rate education must combine both the liberal arts and practical knowledge. It’s fine to “pursue one’s passion,” but it is also necessary for the good of both the individual and society at large for one’s passion to put food on the table and pay the rent.

Education is neither strictly a consumer-based process nor an assembly line. It combines features of both. It is, in short, unique. And those who view it solely as a consumer purchase commit the same error as those who view it mere as a production process. It’s called narrow vision, a trait hopefully absent in educated people.

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