Decommodifying education

Last quarter, I raised my hand in class and respectfully told my teacher that I thought what he had just said was bullshit.

The dormant class awakened with a burst of laughter, and my good-natured professor smiled before opening the floor. He invited a discussion that interrupted class and offered students a respite from the rather dry lecture format he normally used. The class discussion that spun off my remark engaged more students than I had seen all quarter and elicited verbal participation from many students who normally remained silent. We were learning from discussion, rather than passively listening.

What were university classes like before PowerPoint? I can hardly muster a scenario in my mind, because the teaching tool is so ubiquitous. You mean, professors had to write on chalkboards? Professors had to speak engagingly to hold our attention? PowerPoint no doubt has its benefits, but it is embarrassing when a professor reads slides off a PowerPoint presentation in a way that would surely earn me a C in any class if I were being graded.

Not all professors suffer from this sort of incompetence, thank gosh, but even the best ones are limited by the lecture format. You’d think the way we were taught was designed by economists.

If we, the students, are investors, then the University is our bank. We invest our time, money and intellectual trust into this bank, expecting a decent return on our investments at the end of our four (or five) years. The professors, in the scenario, are like the tellers who hold access to such assets. So, we arrive at class, sit down and try to passively absorb their knowledge.

And, what’s better? In many classes (say, nearly any introductory course at UC Davis), we are only expected to memorize and regurgitate this information on a multiple-choice exam. Sounds like an awfully easy way to gain knowledge. But that’s just it. It is easy, because we don’t actually learn.

In economic terms, I believe this would be called fraud. We are faithfully investing ourselves and our future in this educational system, and we are not obtaining the return we’ve been promised. Every single one of my classes should be well-organized, high-quality and educational, and I’ve experienced far too many that fail to meet this criteria.

Last fall, students protested the exorbitant rise in student fees without a proportional increase in educational quality and services. After the pepper spray incident, the focus of these protests shifted away from educational critique. Let’s return to the original spirit of these protests and tell our university what we want.

Every student should feel comfortable speaking out to professors or administration on the ways we’d like to see our education improved, because we have every right to. If the University is going to treat us like customers, then we should demand a better-quality product. But, here, even my own rhetoric on this issue is disturbing.

My own language is reflecting how we’ve come to view our educational system through an economic framework. There is not only a crisis in the quality of education, but also in the method of which it is being delivered. What are the inherent issues with viewing education as a market? If education is commodified, then those who can afford to pay the most will receive the highest-quality education. Oops. That sounds vaguely familiar.

If we all agree that roughly $55,000 in tuition for a four-year education at UC Davis is expensive, then I need not argue that $165,000 in tuition for a four-year education at Stanford is abusively outrageous. I will not argue that private schools are across the board better than public schools, but they are definitely trying to be. Most private schools are already cost-prohibitive to the average student and the more tuition increases at public schools (the supposedly affordable option), the more inaccessible education becomes.

And here we reach an impassable philosophical debate. Should education be available to everyone? The obvious answer to me is yes, of course! But there are others who outrightly argue that no, only a certain percent of our population should obtain some degree of higher education. Our current educational system reflects the values that education is not a right, but a privilege.

Our educational system is mistaken. A high-quality education is a right for every person. If you agree with me, support the efforts of protesters who defend education. If you agree with me, speak up in class and demand it be so.

To tell ELLI PEARSON about the times you’ve called out your professors on bullshit, email her at erpearson@ucdavis.edu.

One Comment

  • Locke
    February 4, 2013

    Sadly, a better education can be found elsewhere, depending on the major. Most of what was taught to me at UC Davis in Economics fell under one of the following categories:
    (1) already taught to me by my mom, who learned about the stock market online on her own time
    (2) already learned in high school
    (3) admitted by the textbook/professor itself that it assumed many perfect/near-perfect scenarios that rendered the information very inaccurate

    Unfortunately, the quality of what we have at UC Davis as well as at other public schools is not justifying the price of what we pay. Furthermore, the whole point of public education in the first place was so that it can be financially accessible to all people who wish to learn; sadly, this is no longer true at all.

    Using Powerpoints is sad. =\

    The entire format of teaching should be overhauled as well.

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