Will You Have Fries with Your Metaphysics?

By Doug Mann, University of Western Ontario


Universities have undergone a subtle yet profound shift over the last few decades, a shift that has brought them closer to the consumer economy and to our overly therapeutic culture, thereby undermining the foundations of higher learning. There are a number of names for this process, but the best is probably McDonaldization, coined by the American sociologist George Ritzer. This is the process where a social or political institution adopts the methods of McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets: efficiency, a standardized product, a high turnover, a phony intimacy between buyer and seller (“Hi! My name’s Jennifer! How can I serve you today?”), and the notion that the customer is always right (or at least that’s what we want them to think). More and more our schools have become Fast Food U’s, McVersities eager to enter the service sector, with students as customers, teachers as servers, and administrators as franchise managers.


The overall atmosphere today in institutions of higher learning, as compared to a generation ago, is one of high technology, corporate connectivity, self-indulgence and a therapeutic approach to teaching by professors and course and discipline-choice by students. Yet as Stanley Fish says in his article in the February 4 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education on a similar theme, if professors are expected to be therapists, then they’re practicing without a license or formal training.


Starting in the late 1960s, students began to have more and more choice of which courses they could take, to the point where university calendars wind up looking like very complex menus from which the student can choose a variety of intellectual delicacies – an appetizer of introduction to psychology, a delicious bowl of astronomy, a main course of metaphysics, and a cherry-topped desert of criminology. The dark side of this is the fact that undergraduate students are woefully ignorant of the basic facts of world history, national politics, or the great works of literature, unless they happen to stumble on them by being a history, political science, or literature major.


Added to the menu-approach to course selection is another innovation from the fast-food sector, the complaint card. In universities these are called “student evaluations,” and have become a compulsory end-of-term ritual in most schools. They usually consist of a series of about 10-15 questions on whether the student in question was satisfied with his or her intellectual meal. Some of the questions are innocuous enough, like “Were assignments graded promptly?” or “Did the professor follow the course outline?” But some other questions (taken from an actual evaluation) enter the legendary Land of Mental Fuzz: “Was the professor’s presentation interesting?”, “Did the professor show concern?”, and “Was the professor a good motivator?” In other words, “Did this class make you feel good about yourself?” This is a question for pop psychology, not educators.


One quick and easy reform of this system is to ask students to sign their evaluations, thus taking responsibility for their mean and spiteful comments about a professor’s personality, dress choices, or general physical appearance. Then ask them to answer a few tough questions about their own intellectual habits: “Did you come to more than 50% of lectures?” “Did you buy the textbook and read it?” “Are your negative comments motivated by feelings of revenge for getting a low grade in the class?” If they don’t answer these questions fairly, or don’t sign the evaluation, then send it to the shredder!


It wasn’t so long ago that if a student couldn’t pay attention in class, they would fail their exams and have to repeat the course. Under the pervasive influence of the seductive sounds and images of mass culture – television, music videos, omnipresent pop music piped directly into the brain via I-Pods and similar devices, not to mention the infernally eternal linkages links provided by cell phones and the Internet – more and more young people fall prey to Attention Deficit Disorder and its psycho-cousins. Now inattentive Andy or Amanda gets a note from a special office to give them all the time they need to write exams, an indulgence they won’t get once the hallowed halls of academe are left behind.


In addition, universities have liberal add/drop deadlines and other policies designed to accommodate students’ indecision, mark obsession, or laziness. For example, at Western one can wait until November 30 to drop a full-year course: students will demand first-term tests back before the drop date so they can ditch the course if their grades are too low for their tastes. Whether the course material is important or interesting is a secondary concern.


A true story: a couple of years ago a student of mine showed up at the end of the very last class in April asking to make up a mid-term test written in February he had missed. When I said it was too late, he stormed out of the classroom fuming, kicking a garbage can as he left because I had had the temerity to demand that he actually contact me within a month of missing the only term work he had to do in the course! The moral of the story is simple: students see courses and professors as part of an intellectual service industry which they feel free to complain about and abuse if the service isn’t up to their exacting standards – standards which, of course, most of them could never live up to themselves.


And the classroom conversations in the McVersity have lost their edge. Most students today have a pathological fear of disagreeing with each other, even in ethics, political issues and social theory classes. Popularity vetoes intellectual debate. They would far rather treat irreconcilable claims as “just opinions” than exercise critical thought and attack each other’s ideas. As Alan Bloom hinted in his 1988 The Closing of the American Mind, a fog of soft relativism has settled over higher education which obscures real differences in values and interpretations with the sweet delight of the notion that everyone could, indeed, be right about pretty well everything (outside of hard science). Where’s Herbert Marcuse when you need him?


Mark inflation and workload deflation are two more characteristics of the McVersity. The modern student is obsessed with grades, and all too often treats a B, a once respectable mark, as a failure. A large minority of students find reading classical literature and theoretical texts next to impossible, preferring pre-digested accounts in textbooks or point-form summaries e-mailed to them by their professors. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday reading through Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and hundreds of pages of Marx and Engels in an undergraduate political theory class. Now such a class is likely to be taught from a textbook containing bite-size bits of these great works, or from an entirely secondary source containing but a whiff of the original classics. It’s not in the least strange for a sociology undergraduate to get their BA without having read a single social theory classic from cover to cover. Yet we shouldn’t be too hard on the students themselves: we live in a therapeutic culture where most people think that feeling good is more important than critical thought or hard work.


Technology only serves to hasten the McDonaldization process. Over the last decade the computer has brought many changes in the way schools are administered, courses are taught, and teachers and students communicate. At Western students can log on to the registrar’s page and add and drop courses at will up to a certain date each term – they don’t even have to talk to counselors or professors about the content of their courses. Professors are more and more pressured to use glitzy Power Point presentations instead of the once cutting-edge overhead projector or the unadorned spoken word. And worst of all, the de facto norm for teacher/student (and probably student/student) communication has become e-mail. It’s not unusual for a student to ask a professor via e-mail to spend an hour detailing the key elements of a missed lecture or describing an assignment which is already described in the course outline rather than getting off their duffs and coming to the professor’s office for a much shorter and probably more informative chat. Added to the sense of isolation and alienation that e-mail promotes, some students now feel free to flame their TAs and lecturers over e-mail if they didn’t get the mark they think they deserved or the professor refuses an essay extension. The computer has created a whole new realm of rudeness that once again pushes the university closer to the mentality of the service economy.


Canadian universities comply all too easily with the modus operandi of the fast-food economy. More and more they hire part-time teachers who work on course-by-course contracts, to the point where it’s not unusual at some schools for half of all first- and second-year courses to be taught by graduate students or part-timers with no long-term stake in the institution they work for. Universities treat a large group of their employees like fast-food chains treat their own workers: as a cheap and disposable work force which requires little training, and can be turned over completely each year or two at the whim of administrators or departmental chairs.


And when they do hire new faculty into full-time positions, they’re often slick young things from south of the border whose lack of experience at teaching and publishing is made up for (or so the ideology goes) by youthful enthusiasm, just like all those bubbly teens behind the counter at your friendly neighborhood burger joint.


And on a deeper level, universities have more and more emphasized the skills required by the corporate economy when allocating their dwindling funds to hiring and research. Venerable disciplines are trying to make themselves relevant to the globalized economy, like youth-obsessed septuagenarians listening to hip hop and wearing belly rings: Philosophy departments teach critical thinking, English departments writing, Sociology departments statistics, etc. The core of the old liberal education in the arts and sciences is being eroded by a corporatist surrender to the notion that university degrees are nothing more than tickets to a good job and thus more money - if you ask students if this is true, as I have in at least a half dozen different classes over the last few years, the large majority readily admit it. Wither is fled the visionary gleam? Into suburbia, driven there by an SUV with a television bolted to the roof to keep the kids happy during those long, agonizing drives home.


When they starting asking me to wear a button bearing a bright yellow happy face and a baseball cap with the university’s logo on it, I’ll know it’s time to quit.


Doug Mann teaches in several departments at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.