12/11/2014 10:52 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Students Are Not Customers

The public schools have long been ideological battlegrounds. Ideologues are seldom content to grind their axes quietly and unobtrusively. If creationism were practiced only among consenting adults, then it might be worthy of the occasional snort or giggle, but for the most part it could just be ignored. However, creationists have tried many times to insert their tenets into the science curricula of public schools. I used to have a cartoon posted on my office door that showed a thick volume titled Texas Science Textbook: King James Version.

The courts have largely stymied the creationists, but the ideological armies march on. Here in Texas, where election to the State Board of Education turns more on purity of creed than academic qualifications, students get the Fox News version of social studies. Textbooks are required to tout "American Exceptionalism," and the glories of the free market. Among the surprising "facts" that Texas students learn is that Mosaic law laid the basis for the American Constitution, that the Civil War was not chiefly about slavery (which might not have been so terribly bad after all), and that, by golly, ol' Joe McCarthy really did find some commies lurking in the federal government.

Now the ideologues have set their sights on higher education. Their approach is much subtler here. They do not aim so much to impose a curriculum (though the Koch brothers have made a stab in this direction). Their aim is far more fundamental and insidious. Their goal is nothing less than the destruction of the ancient and venerable academic culture.

The culture of academe is the product of a historical development that began with the founding of Plato's Academy 2400 years ago. This academic culture recognizes the essential role of research and the necessity of protecting the intellectual independence of researchers by the institution of tenure. Legitimate research cannot be accomplished if researchers are required to toe a doctrinal line or avoid offending the powers-that-be. As Socrates asserted long ago, researchers must be free to follow the argument wherever it leads, even if it leads to conclusions that politicians and administrators do not like.

Academics further recognize that, far from being opposed, research and teaching are complementary. Research brings fresh ideas, new perspectives, and deeper insights, and the most effective teachers are those who enliven their instruction with the stimulus of fresh thinking. Conversely, though this is less often recognized, the skills developed by teaching are also helpful to researchers. Teaching students demands a rigorous clarity of thought that can communicate the essence of a concept without oversimplifying. Such clarity is a helpful correction to the academic occupational hazard of letting jargon substitute for thinking.

Ideologues of the right, with increasing support from politicians, and even from some university administrators, now want to impose a "business model" on academe. On this model, students are customers, and universities are in the business of manufacturing degrees. If universities are businesses, then the main function of a professor is to generate income. To that end, professors should teach more and larger courses. They should teach few specialized courses for small groups of advanced students. Rather, they should mostly teach big courses and their salaries and promotions should turn largely on how many butts are in the seats in their classrooms. If professors are to teach more and larger classes, then, obviously, there will be less or no time for research. However, proponents of the business model disparage most academic research. Unless research generates grant money, it is to be discouraged.

If professors don't like these changes, you get rid of them! In fact, this process is already well underway. Nationwide, full-time, i.e. tenured or tenure-track, professors are being replaced by adjuncts who receive low pay, no benefits, and have no job security. Conservatives have long despised academics because scholarly research refuses to line up behind right-wing hobby horses. For instance, academic research debunks right-wing views on evolution, climate change, supply-side economics, "reparative therapy" for gay people, and abstinence-only sex education. The real nemesis of conservative ideology is objective reality. As Jon Stewart puts it, the facts have a liberal bias. So, the academic researcher is disparaged and despised for dumping the cold water of reason onto the wishful thinking of conservatives.

So, what is wrong with the "business model" for higher education? Business models are great -- for businesses. However, educating human beings is not like manufacturing and marketing widgets. For one thing, students are not customers. The customer is always right, but the student is not always right. The professor, like a medical doctor, has the responsibility of telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Further, unlike selling widgets, success in education simply cannot be quantified in terms of moving so many units in a given time. A degree is not a tangible thing; it is a symbol, a symbol of the attainment of a certain level of skill and knowledge. Viewing a degree as simply a marketed product makes the symbol more important than what it supposedly symbolizes. You are no longer educating. You are selling credentials.

Real conservatism -- the conservatism of Edmund Burke, not the incoherent mess that now goes by that name -- can be summarized by the slogan "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." Public higher education in our society is not yet broken, but it soon will be if the ideologues and the politicians keep "fixing" it their way.