September 9, 2012 The purpose of education? Freedom
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, considers the purpose of education in the face of economic uncertainty and national security that can reduce students to “human capital” and comes up with the following:
We should not think of schools as garrisons protecting us from enemies, nor as industries generating human capital. Rather, higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find “large and human significance” in their lives and work.
The idea that students would be reduced to “human capital” is a tad off-putting to say the least. But, I have to admit that teachers can play a role in the commodification of students if they look at students as the next bunch of kids to learn x, y and z. It’s easier said that done, but to mitigate the potential to commodify students, teachers must know students as individuals. But what about the students themselves? Are they contributing to their oversimplification into human capital? Unquestionably and unfortunately, yes.
Students contribute to their own commodification in subtle and not so subtle ways. Let’s start with the ways students do research. Because students do not have to work hard to do research, it’s a challenge for them to view information as anything but an readily accessible commodity. Students have become the academic version of a commodities broker who, like the Wall Street version, may never actually own (i.e. learn) the stuff they’re manipulating. Of course, today’s students had little to do with creating the modern research infrastructure, so this perspective isn’t assigning blame. While there’s no need to force students back into the library stacks to get research done, they do need to respect all that went into making the google and wiki clicks fruitful in the first place. Students must know that search boxes and twitter feeds are tools but the information they retrieve and reveal is so much more.
Another way students, at least K-12 students, self-commoditize (made up word alert!), is the overemphasis on getting into the “right” college. The problem here is that students confuse the right college with those schools sitting atop worthless magazine rankings. They are unaware of it, but when students obsess over admission to the who’s-who of top whatever schools, they turn themselves into academic widgets. If the goal is to be one of the students attending THE university, then the individual student become interchangeable with any student at THE university. On the other hand, if students put their individuality first and find a variety of schools, each fitting aspects of their personalities in different measure, then they recognize another one of Roth’s punchlines:
that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.