This morning, my wife was recounting a conversation she’d had with another parent at a local homeschooling co-op where she teaches and our children take classes. Her friend–speaking parent to parent, not parent to teacher–stated quite emphatically that we parents are consumers of our children’s education, and should (I guess) act like consumers in our interactions with their teachers.
Now, I’m as guilty as the next guy of from time to time applying the market metaphor to education. I am, after all, employed by a private liberal arts college that relies heavily on tuition for revenue. But I relatively frequently tell students (especially when I’m trying to be provocative) that virtually everything that they regard as unpleasant about their educational experience (having to see me in class thrice weekly, for example) is a consequence of the way in which education is treated economically. What students and their parents pay for (using that term loosely) is a credential, which requires that credits be assigned to classes and work be assigned to students in order to earn the grade and the credits. To be sure, since education is to some degree about attaining and demonstrating mastery, some sort of performance is essential to it, but not the sort that is bureaucratized, routinized, and regulated the way higher education (and not only higher education) has become.
When we regard education as a product to be consumed, the relationship between teacher and student is corrupted. I no longer can be presumed to have authority because (at the very least) I’m further down the path on which the student treads. I may have something the student wants (knowledge? a grade?), but can no longer claim (save perhaps as a marketing ploy) to have something the student needs.
And it’s not just my loss as a teacher. If education is a marketplace in which there is consumer sovereignty, we can no longer make any authoritative claims about what constitutes an educated or cultivated person. All we can say is that the market demands this or that credential, recognizing (of course) that demands change over time.
I recognize that this is a complicated question, even or especially in the homeschool setting where parents take seriously their comprehensive responsibility for the education of their children. They are, in effect, the headmasters and headmistresses of their chidlren’s school, and the teachers to whom they sometimes send them are in some sense their employees. But however seriously we take Deuteronomy 11:18-21, we can’t always assume that what we as parents know is all-sufficient. It may well be our duty to understand so far as possible the most important things, but even in being guided by these considerations we are no mere consumers. And once we go beyond the considerations of duty into the bodies of knowledge that exist in the modern world, the market metaphor is no less misleading.