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At many universities, this is the first week of fall classes, and undergraduates are doing what they’ve been taught to do as members of a consumer class—they’re going shopping.

Not shopping for new dorm furniture—that was last week’s business. This week they’re shopping for college classes, sampling different professors to see which one they’d like to take for the entire semester.

This practice is now so common that an NYU Stern School of Business student felt entitled to complain to professor Scott Galloway when Galloway refused to admit the student late to the first class meeting, on the grounds that he (the student) was simply sampling different classes and couldn’t be expected to arrive on time. Professor Galloway’s (salty) response to the student went “viral”—and many of those forwarding Galloway’s email would have been other professors who are tired of being treated as vendors of goods.

The “shopping” that students carry out during the first week of classes is just one sign of how universities are no longer islands of learning apart from general society but have been taken over by the broader consumer culture, nowhere better described than in University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson’s classic Harper’s essay on the subject, in which he humorously describes college as “lite entertainment for bored college students.”

Professors Galloway and Edmundson’s responses to their students make us laugh—but in fact both professors are obviously deeply serious about the infection of academic life by consumer culture.

The problem is that the very best courses are often not the ones with greatest appeal on the first day. What most attracts students—especially freshmen—are fun conversations that don’t “take them out of their comfort zone.” Professor Edmondson observes: 

How does one prosper with the present clientele? Many of the most successful professors now are the ones who have “decentered” their classrooms. There’s a new emphasis on group projects and on computer-generated exchanges among the students. What they seem to want most is to talk to one another. A classroom now is frequently an “environment,” a place highly conducive to the exchange of existing ideas, the students’ ideas. Listening to one another, students sometimes change their opinions. But what they generally can’t do is acquire a new vocabulary, a new perspective, that will cast issues in a fresh light.

And yet, what students need is to be introduced to a new vocabulary, indeed, to be introduced to whole new disciplinary languages that can open them to new thoughts and perspectives. One of the twentieth-century’s great philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, argued:

What undergraduates may get at a university, and nowhere else in such favourable circumstances, is some understanding of what it is to think historically, mathematically, scientifically or philosophically, and some understanding of these not as “subjects,” but as living “languages” and of those who explore and speak them as being engaged in explanatory enterprises of different sorts.

Unfortunately, the hard business of learning the “language” of history or of mathematics isn’t always easy to dress up in a hyper-appealing way. And so students are drawn to classes that are superficially engaging and topical rather than the ones that ground them in a disciplinary “language” for decades to come.

The German sociologist Max Weber argued that American colleges, in fact, are particularly vulnerable to corruption by commercialism, because business plays such a large role in American society and this encourages Americans to analogize everything to business transaction. Weber asserted:

The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage.

Now, would Professor Galloway’s tardy prospective student have been as rude to a “greengrocer” as he was to Professor Galloway?

Undergraduates need to take the more challenging, perhaps less immediately appealing classes—and yet it’s a true challenge to sell those classes.

1 thought on ““Shopping” for learning”

  1. Andrew says:

    Unfortunately, given the astonishing amount of money they are bringing to the table, students actually are the customers and have every right to see themselves a the position to be served.
    How did we get here? By dint of higher education becoming the domain of being a “right” instead of a “privilege”, as it was during the times when college actually meant something, when it was meritocratic and exceptional to gain admittance.
    Universities turned themselves in to lucrative businesses, sucking on the federal teat and rolling parents and students along the way. They are profit driven, like every other business, with only a pale veneer of a mission just like Starbucks. They got what they wanted. Now they just need to give company trainings to their profs in “customer service.”

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