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Education as a Commodity

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I teach a course on adolescence at a nearby university, exploring the various challenges and rewards that new teachers will encounter in the middle and high school classrooms. In addition to the university's computerized evaluations, I always hand out my own feedback and evaluation form near the end of the semester. Amidst the many positive comments and suggestions, one negative evaluation stood out. Of course I wondered who wrote this and I imagined it was the class grump. One tries to be professional, to reflect on what was learned from the overall feedback. But, of course, it is easy to obsess, to keep coming back to the negative one.

What the student had to say was interesting. "I was looking back at my expenses this semester and I calculated that I pay $150 for each class session I have. Sometimes I wonder. . . . was it worth $150 for me to attend a movie (The Class) with you and chat about it afterwards? Did I get my $150 worth when we did that artifact share activity?"

Talk about pressure. I worried that I would have to toss out lots of things: community building activities, student sharing, open-ended exploration, field trips -- even jokes, for God's sake. I had to come up with $150 worth of knowledge for each 2 ½ hour class! This worried me further because I felt that some of the knowledge came from the experiences we went through, not just from some random facts about teens that I could download.

One day as I continued to be troubled by this feedback it dawned on me: I should do my own calculation. Let's see: I get paid approximately $200 for each class I conduct (which must include class time and lots of preparation, reading, responding to journals, etc.). Hmm, let's see...with 20 students, I'm actually getting only $10 from each student for each class session I deliver. Ten stinking dollars! Hey, a field trip or a group discussion would be cheap at half the price. But then I'm thinking: who got the other $140 that the student ponied up? The university, obviously. Surely they need it to maintain the buildings, to pay the president a "competitive" salary, to...well, whatever they do with it. But now I'm mad at the student. "Hey, buddy," I'm thinking, "Don't lay that on me. Talk to your university. They're screwing us both over."

Of course, when I was in college, it was only $200 in fees for a whole semester. We had plenty of things to be angry about but $150 a class was not one of them. There has always been a problem with the idea of education as a thing, an object that gets passed over to the student. It's embedded in the language, even in terms like "to teach" and "to deliver" a lesson -- it's all transmission, all downloading. But all the best educational experiences go outside this box, make something really happen, including deep, complex, and critical thinking, exploration, and reflection.

In the hands of the neo-liberals, the schools are less about learning and more about certification, the blessing of those who can afford it with a piece of paper that says they are qualified to hold the more privileged positions in society. Education is not seen as a public good -- it is a private benefit that can be purchased in the marketplace. It's a system for handing down privileges to the next generation while masking as a meritocracy. Them what has, gets.

The idealist in me says we should not just try to reform this mess. Perhaps we should step outside the wall in order to let the good stuff, the real education, happen. This will take some imagination and courage but what do we have to lose? I'll collect that $10 from each of you at the door.