Student needs discipline, understanding and other life lessons

Dr. Dale Simpson - Professor of English

Dr. Dale Simpson – Professor of English

I have been thinking a lot lately about my experience of almost 27 years at Missouri Southern State College/University. During the last eight years, I have served as head of my department, a largely enjoyable job. The “largely enjoyable” part of it refers to my colleagues, who are not only among the best teachers on campus but are interesting people. I remain as department head because it is a joy to work with them.

The “job” part of what I do refer primarily to my role as head of the department. Sometimes it’s more of a job than at other times. It can even be unpleasant from time to time. Among other things, my job requires me to function as the complaint department when students are unhappy with their professors, and sometimes when professors are unhappy with their students. Over the eight years I have served in this administrative capacity, I have noticed a growing, disturbing trend among college students here, which I believe is partly due to a false model of college education and partly due to recent trends in American society.

The model of which I am speaking is the student as consumer of education, or the student as customer. There are all sorts of things wrong with this model of education, which I don’t have the space to list and explain in any kind of detail. For one thing, it puts the university into the role of retailer of a product, that being a college education. It puts the student into the role of purchaser of a college education-that is, a “customer.” The problem with students thinking of themselves as customers, or even worse, the university promoting that idea, as it has in the past, is that it puts the student into the wrong position relevant to the professor. When you think of “customer” you are bound to think of the cliché “The customer is always right,” invented by a retailer a hundred years ago. Hmmm. It gives one pause to think of that statement with regard to students at any level. The problem with this model is that education isn’t a retail field.

How far can this model extend? Well, how about substituting “student” for “customer”: “The student is always right.” Really? Consider what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The customer is the immediate jewel of our souls. Him we flatter, him we feast, compliment, vote for and will not contradict.” Substitute the word “student” for “customer,” and what do you have? “The student is the immediate jewel of our souls. The student we flatter, the student we feast, compliment, vote for, and will not contradict.” Not contradict a student? I don’t think that even students would agree with that. No, retailing provides a false analogy for what we do. Let’s discard that model.

So what is the relationship more like? Consider the following: A personal trainer. A karate instructor. A dance teacher or music teacher. A drill sergeant. These are mentors, not retailers. You do what they say, and you will be a better person for it. Anyone who has ever been in the military knows about drill sergeants. They are absolute standards of authority for their trainees, who would never think of contradicting their orders.

I know about drill sergeants because I was in the military. I obeyed the drill sergeants, and I wound up a better person for it. I also take a Pilates class at the Y. Angela is our instructor, and I will do whatever she says; in fact, more than what I think I can do, because she sets the standard high for us to reach. If it were left up to me to do it at home, I would probably do half the stuff she makes me do. Believe me, I need an instructor.

One of the problems students may have with authority in the classroom is due to the general education requirement. A student comes to Missouri Southern to be a computer systems analyst, or a corporate manager, or a nurse or a law enforcement officer, or an elementary teacher. Having to take writing courses, literature courses, history courses, biology, political science or economics presents a problem for some students, for they fail to see the relevance to what they want to do with their careers. We don’t do a good job at MSSU of showing the connections among these disciplines, of showing why knowing this information, or thinking differently or being able to do certain things makes students better people, so maybe part of the blame can be laid at our feet. However, some students have become belligerent about their experiences in these seemingly peripheral courses and have behaved in inappropriate ways. I hear it directly from them, and from their professors. This trend is making higher education more difficult for professors and students alike.

A better model of higher education is the apprenticeship model. In other words, professors are, or should be, mentors for their students, even general education students. Their professors may teach something seemingly absurd like “Wax on, wax off” to students who don’t see the relevance initially, but if they receive the instruction dutifully and patiently, later on they should see the relevance. At least we hope they will.

A second model is the product model. There may be a “customer” for higher education, but it’s not the student. Instead, it’s the employer who hires the student. To elaborate, the MSSU professor can be compared to the production line worker who adds to the student on the production line the bits of knowledge or skills, or both, that he or she has been hired to add. It is a shame that many of us at the general education instruction level will never see the “final products” that pass through our classes lacking full form early on. The final product is the student graduate, and he or she is “purchased” by the employer. One hopes the craftsmanship is of high quality, or the customer may be justifiably unsatisfied. (One also hopes that you don’t take this illustration too seriously.)

The student is also like the clay to the potter. Allow me to wax biblical for a moment. The prophet Isaiah provides some wisdom on this subject, in two passages. In Isaiah 45 he writes, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker*. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands’?” And in Isaiah 29 he says, “You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” This model is more to the point, I believe. Allow us shapers to shape your minds and your skills as you move through the curriculum. Allow that we have some skills in molding you. Give us the respect that the pot should give to the potter.

Reflecting on my 27 years at MSSU, I am seeing and hearing more and more instances of the product faulting the assembler, of the clay carping about the potter. If all our students change their perceptions of themselves as customers of education to apprentices, to malleable clay, to “products” of higher education, I believe we can get on better with the business of higher education.

However, I am doubtful that the situation will actually improve much. We live in a culture of extremism, of entitlement, of selfishness, of impatience, all of which weighs against the good old virtues of respect for authority and the patience to see the big picture unfold. To the students who read this, most of whom do respect their professors, please allow us to do our jobs of helping to mold you. I recommend that you pause at the end of the education process and review your learning experiences. You may be amazed at the results.