Unlike the Spice Girls, I do not often ask my audience what they want, what they really really want. I think of myself as my students’ personal trainer, except I help them develop minds — rather than buns — of steel. I have many colleagues in Hawai’i and abroad who worry that education is becoming ‘commodified’ and that people increasingly think of paying for an education as being similar to buying a new Camaro. While they worry about students demanding ‘customer satisfaction’ the largest issue in education I’ve run across today is an emphasis on credentialing rather than educating. Students that I encounter at universities across the US are less worried about achieving a state of satisfaction than earning an A, and approach classes more worried about the cultivation of their transcript than their sensibilities. Obviously, trying to get a great grade in a course is not exactly orthogonal to learning anything, but the shift in emphasis does sometimes make my job harder.
This is why I like the image of the personal trainer — it helps people understand what they are getting for their money: an opportunity to undergo a personal transformation which they may or may not take advantage of. It also helps underline another aspect of the teacher-student relationship which I believe quite strongly in despite the prevailing egalitarianism of our times: students do not know what they want or need out of an education — that is why they need us to guide them through it. Like Dante or Luke Skywalker, they need old guys in robes to guide them and unleash their potential.
That’s why I was struck by 37 Signals’s “recent blog entry”:http://37signals.com/svn/archives2/people_dont_know_how_to_ask_for_what_they_really_want.php. As designers of websites and other things, they note that
Nobody knows what they really want before they get it. Not consumers, not conference goers, not programmers, and certainly not clients. Delivering greatness requires you to let go of the safety in mediocrity where you just do as you’re told.
For people working in the private sector, this is quite an insight. But my general feeling is: duh. I am reminded of the shift that has occurred in restaurant menus over the past couple of decades. Today menus are elaborate paeons to the food diners are about to consume. But traditionally the menus at America’s great restaurants had menus that read ‘five courses of fish in different sauces.’ They didn’t elaborate, because the chef was clearly more capable of deciding what you ought to eat then you were. The client, after all, waits on the souffle — not the other way around.
The wonderful thing about 37 Signals’s entry is that it helps to remind educators fearful of creeping consumerism that people who Get It — and 37 Signals is an outstanding company that does Get It — come to understand what they do as similar to education. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the trend that educators fear. Contrary to Hannah Arendt’s disparaging remarks about academics’ fear of anything not inherently mediocre (which are, unfortunately, not entirely off the mark), this is a case where people who excel at what they do have come to an understanding that is in line with, not opposed to, the ideals of the academy.