How Many Ways Must We Say It?

This is a guest post by Joel Thomas Tierno, a contributor to the recent November-December issue of Academe. Tierno is a professor of philosophy at the College of Southern Nevada; he has also taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Erie Community College, Buffalo State College, and Elmira College. He is the author of Epistemic Evil: A Third Problem of Evil.

Two related ideas motivated this little piece. They are simple ideas. The first is that schools are important. As responsible people, we should therefore be thoughtful in our consideration of them and our talk about them. The second is that metaphors matter. As responsible people, we should therefore choose them with care.

A growing number of our colleagues in higher education are failing horribly on both counts in thinking about the places they work and the students they work with. Responding to this failure is an obligation of the first order of magnitude. Failure to meet this obligation seriously imperils the institutions we are charged with protecting. Many of these institutions are already suffering from this failing.

The specific culprits we face are twofold; the schools-are-businesses model and the students-are-customers model. These models invoke terrible metaphors for both the school and the student.

A good metaphor helps to reveal the true nature of the object of the metaphor. Here, then, are the critical questions: Does the school-business metaphor really help us to better appreciate the core mission of the places we work? and Does the student-customer metaphor really help us to better understand the role of students and our obligations to them? The answer on both counts is perfectly plain. Rather than deepening and broadening our understanding of who we are, what we should do, who our students are, and what we should expect of them, these interwoven metaphors obscure these critical concerns. This, in turn, promotes a great deal of misconceived and misguided activity. If you work at a large institution of higher education, you know what I mean. As a direct result of this misunderstanding and misdirection, the growth rate among educational administrators across the country greatly outstrips the growth rate of teaching faculty. This is a sure sign that the entire system is losing its sense of direction and purpose.

The biggest defect in these dangerously defective metaphors is that they encourage both parties to view the other primarily, if not exclusively, as a means. It is crazy for us to think this way about our students. And it is important that they come to see us as something more than the institutional venue to a certain income and lifestyle. It is important for us that our students learn to see us as holders of a sacred trust in which they have a very real stake. I am speaking of the university as both a source and a repository of knowledge, culture, and wisdom. I am speaking of the university as a center of science, art, and philosophy. And I am speaking of the university as a place devoted to the study of our selves, our society, our politics, our past, our future, other peoples, and the wider world we all share.

Here, perhaps, is the bottom line: What we offer to our students is not a commodity or service in any meaningful sense and it is not illuminating to think of it that way. Our students are not customers or consumers in any ordinary sense and it is positively dangerous for us to think of them that way.

I think that there are no good metaphors for schools. Why should there be? Schools worth their salt are special and distinctive institutions. Nothing else is very much like them. Hence, there are no good metaphors for them.

If we are nonetheless compelled to have some metaphor for schools, it is best to think of them as churches of learning. A true church is a nurturing institution. It exists for the benefit of its members. Is this not also true of the institutions to which we belong? A true church takes itself, rightly or wrongly, to be in possession of important truths that will advance the deepest interests of its members. Is that not also true of the institutions to which we belong? A true church gives its parishioners as much as it can while asking the least in return that is consistent with the long-term well-being of the institution. Should we not do likewise for our students? And does any of this put us in mind of the operation of businesses? No. Absolutely not! So, then, let us once and for all lay these misleading metaphors to rest before they gain further ground and do further damage.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the November-December issue of Academe in “How Many Ways Must We Say It?” an essay by Joel Thomas Tierno. 

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