John Henry Newman

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I do not believe that article titles are copyrighted–the title is this post is from an article in the Summer 2005 issue of Academic Questions. Today I heard another speaker claim that college and university students are customers. He used the tired old arguments that they are paying money for a service and are customers for that reason. I believe that such an attitude subverts education and can even be labeled as an unethical position.

Education, like medicine or law, is a “practice” (to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s term). Each of these fields have certain internal goods or goals that can only be gained through the practice. For example, medicine has as its goal the restoration of a sick person to health, and if physical health cannot be restored, the restoration of comfort to the patient. This involves the physician gaining certain virtues, such as skill in medicine, practical wisdom, compassion, and integrity. Yes, a patient pays a bill, and the physician receives the payment–but the patient should not be modeled primarily as a customer. To do so subverts medicine, for the real human being in need, the patient, is reduced to a product of economic concerns. A “medical practitioner” who thinks of his patients primarily as customers is no longer practicing medicine–his attitude toward medicine is intrinsically subversive and unethical.

The same follows for education. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his book, The Idea of a University” ( http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/), states that the fundamental end of higher education is to impart “universal knowledge,” and that external goods such as money or ambition should be subsumed under this end. This does not imply that professors should not get paid, but only that they keep their priorities right.

Newman believes that education not only involves teaching facts, but teaching the student to have good thinking skills as well as moral virtue. Education moderates passion, and a truly educated student will learn to turn knowledge into wisdom. Newman argues against education as having only a utilitarian function, although he believes that the intellectual and moral skills imparted in eduction will practically aid society. In a recent book on education, the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan makes arguments that parallel Newman’s.

Admittedly, a college or university constantly “in the red” will not survive. But  there is a difference between modeling a university as “a business” and saying it is “only a business.” Yes, there is a business aspect to education, as there is to medicine and other practices. Yet in medicine it is wrong to harm a patient in the name of business. In education it is wrong to avoid academic excellence in the name of business. The student-teacher relationship ideally is a mentoring relationship that is unlike the relationship between clerk and customer. Students who hold the latter view are corrupted into thinking that they should get As for paying their tuition. Teachers who focus on “customer satisfaction” are no longer educations, but technicians. They are more like clerks than like professors. Administrations can too easily be led to overlook academic deficiencies as long as tuition money is rolling in. Knowledge, intellectual virtue, honesty, seeking truth no matter where it leads–these essential virtues that should be gained from higher education become slaves to economics. Such subversion is not education and is an unethical path around the essential internal goods of higher education. Any professor who violates the ends of higher education is no longer a professor, but something else entirely.