Recently, a discussion appeared on a the LinkedIn group devoted to higher education teaching and learning (HETL) that asked the question “Are Students Customers or Products?” I know that it is fashionable to use such terms when we are all being focused on the value proposition and the return on investment with regard to the high cost of education. What follows is my contribution to that discussion:
“We Are Not Customers!” a student protest sign rages in one of many video clips that pop up in the news stories and documentaries on the cost and corporatization of higher education. When considering the “customer” or “product” labels, I tend to be wary. Mostly I think of students as the next up—the future. They are going to pick up where we leave off. In my teaching and my work to support the mission of my College, the things I care about, the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and created over the years are offered to them with the hope that they will remember and preserve the best of it, use the useful and discard the useless, all in their construction of an individual and collective future.
I know that I am not without fault in generalizing about our students, in making sweeping generational judgments about their nature and character. They do the same of me and my generation as I did of those who had gone before. But I hope I spend most of my time calling my students by their names and not by labels, looking for and appreciating their individuality rather than dismissing them with generic references and superficial generalizations. Above all, I try to keep the lens of “students as future” at the core of my attitudes and expectations. We spend a great deal of our days in higher education looking to and revering the past. We introduce and immerse our students in what has gone before, in examples of others, experiences and revelations of days, years, centuries gone by. We bet that the rearview mirror will prepare our students for what lies ahead. I feel like a backseat driver, constantly swiveling my head to remind my students of the light they ran or the near miss they didn’t see. And I forget that they are driving—more and more as I get older, I see that they are really driving! They are the future, sitting in our classrooms, working in the labs and studios, online, face to face, they are the future and when we see them in this light, what we do has great meaning and worth. If higher education leaned a bit more in the direction of the future in its curricular and programmatic development, we might not worry about labels for our students, but see them for what we need and hope them to be—the caretakers and makers of their world.