From Academic to Customer: The Paradox of Post-Modern Higher Education Jeroen van Andel Abstract One of the main features of contemporary ‘post-modern’ society is its deeprooted culture of ‘consumerism.’ Over the years both businesses and governmental organizations have increasingly been regarding individuals as consumers. The main values of this ‘era of hyperconsumerism’ are that ‘the consumer’ should be able to get what he wants, where he wants, and as much as he likes. Today higher education institutes appear to have adopted these values as well. Whereas a century ago an undergraduate curriculum entailed a largely fixed course of study, higher education institutes nowadays enable students to ‘shop’ around until they find what they like. This has resulted in what we see as ‘the paradox of post-modern higher education:’ although post-modern society is believed to have become more fragmented and complex, students are less guided by higher education institutes on how they can best achieve their Bildung. On the contrary, students are more and more regarded as rational customers who have to decide for themselves what education they need and thus how they should achieve their Bildung.
***** 1. Introduction A century ago an undergraduate curriculum entailed a largely fixed course of study. However, nowadays higher education institutes enable students to ‘shop’ around until they find what they like. Even rather prestigious institutions enable their students to take up the education they desire.1 Princeton for instance offers its students over 350 courses whereas Harvard offers about forty majors which can be combined into an almost endless array of joint majors. What is more, higher education institutes are more than ever occupied with themes such as ‘product quality,’ ‘customer groups’ and ‘customer satisfaction.’ It therefore appears that higher education has undergone a transformation from Bildung to ‘consumption good’ while students appear to have undergone a transformation from learner to customer.
In this paper we have strived to understand this transformation of postmodern higher education by tracing back the ‘history of ideas’ that gave way to the presumed transformation of higher education.
98 From Academic to Customer In the following we will first have a more detailed look at some of the key characteristics of contemporary ‘post-modern’ society and explain what societal dynamics have paved the way for the so-called ‘era of (hyper) consumerism.’ Subsequently will go in to the relation between consumerism and higher education and the relation between consumerism and Bildung.
Finally we will address the change from student to customer which resulted in what we see as ‘the paradox of post-modern higher education.’ We will end our paper with a conclusion on and a brief discussion of this paradox.
2. Post-Modern Society Contemporary western society is often depicted as postmodern.
However, few subjects have been debated so extensively as the presumed change from modern to postmodern society.2 Although most authors seem to agree that western society has undergone various changes, there is much dispute on the nature, cause and effect(s) of these changes.
There are those, who claim that, in the 1960s and 1970s a radical transformation of western society has taken place.3 This transformation from ‘modern’ to ‘post-modern’ society was thought to be mainly driven by technological developments which transformed the organization of work and the structure of society.4 During that period a standardized western society based on a class or professional structure, strongly linked to industrialism changed into a flexible, highly fragmented, pluralistic and individualized society. In this period, modern society changed into a flexible, highly fragmented, pluralistic and individualized society.5 Modern society and its ‘grand narrative’ changed into a society which enables every individual to construct their own personal narrative.Others disagree to a certain extent with the authors mentioned above.7 They state that industrialism is still an important element of contemporary western society but industrial plants have been exported from first to third world countries.8 In their view it is information technology rather than industrial technology that has changed society. In combination with the risen educational level of western countries these new information technologies have created an era of information flows and streams which have had a fundamental impact on individuals and organizations.9 Postmodern society is therefore seen by authors as Castells, Wuthnow and Wellman as a flexible and complex information or network society in which physical boundaries have declined and in which individuals take control of their own lives.
However, there are also authors who believe that contemporary western society is ‘merely’ a phase in the evolution of industrial or modern society.10 They state that there is no new ‘post-modern society’ but a progressing modern society. According to Beck this evolution of modern society has resulted in a more rationalized social order in which knowledge is Jeroen van Andel disconnected from values, norms and contexts. A society in which information is ‘on the run.’Although the above-mentioned authors disagree to a certain extent, all of their views on contemporary post-modern of late modern society have certain characteristics in common. All authors emphasize that society has become (more) complex, flexible, risky, pluralistic, uncertain and/or fragmented whereas individuals are ‘free’ to write their own personal narrative and take control of their own lives. It are these features which we regard as distinguished characteristics of our contemporary western society.
A society which can have various labels or names. However, we agree with Zygmunt Bauman that it is merely a salutary decision to speak of postmodernity rather than late modernity.12 In this paper we have made the salutary decision to speak of postmodern society rather than late modern or modern society.
3. Post-Modern Society and the Personal Narrative As said earlier, there are different explanations why western society has become (more) complex, flexible, risky, pluralistic and why individuals are more able to write their own personal narrative. In particular new (information) technologies are thought to provide an explanation. However, although these explain why society has changed they do not fully account for the nature of this grown independence of individuals. An independence of which is far more laissez-faire than liberated and far less provided or created than enforced.The independence of subjects and the ability to ‘write their own personal narrative’ has for the past years been extensively and actively promoted by western governments through privatization and deregulation strategies. Accordingly the acquired independence was far less acquired than enforced. It is exactly this ‘enforcement of independence’ which is seen by for instance Bauman as one of the key elements of contemporary western society.14 A society which according to Bauman has transformed from a producer society into a consumer society.
In the following we have aimed to explain why postmodern western society has become so preoccupied with privatization and deregulation and how and to what extent this has influenced the nature of the independence of individuals to shape their own lives.
4. The Rise of Neo-Liberalism and the Gospel of the Free Market There is a widespread consensus about the fact that western society has been fundamentally influenced by the turn of events at the end of the 1980s. As the USSR started to break up and East and West Berlin were reunited there could be found a widespread belief that there was no viable alternative to liberal democracy.100 From Academic to Customer In 1992 Francis Fukuyama stated:
The amount of options to politically and economically organize a nation has fundamentally decreased. Of all the regimes which existed throughout history, from monarchies and aristocracies to religious theocracies and totalitarian fascist and communist states of this century, only the liberal democracy has survived.The belief in liberal democracy and the free market economy seemed unshakeable. It was in this period that neo-liberalism began to flourish and became one a leading principle that would shape the modern west.
In essence neo-liberalism can be seen as ‘an economic doctrine which gives supremacy to free markets as a method of handling not only the economic affairs of the nation, but also as a political ideology which can be applied to all manner of governance issues.’17 At the beginning of the 1990s neo-liberalism was adopted by parties from either end of the political spectrum.18 Although there were many distinctions between western states and therefore a variety of ‘neo-liberalisms’ most of them had many common characteristics. One of these characteristics was ‘a remarkable degree of consensus among the political leadership of various countries about what was wrong about the civil service.’19 As a consequence there could be found a strong and widespread belief that modernization of the public sector was required.
This resulted in the privatization and deregulation of various public services and the introduction of market and quasi market-type mechanisms to raise the ‘customer responsiveness’ of public officials.20 Since then individuals have gained influence over the provision of health care arrangements, telephone providers, public transport, postal services and electric companies to name a few.21 Consequently in, the neo-liberal epoch, individuals are regarded as (potential) consumers not only by businesses, but by their governments as well.
5. An Era of ‘Hyperconsumerism’ The rise of consumer society has for long been addressed by a variety of scholars.22 These addressed various forms of consumption as well as the so-called ‘marketisation’ and ‘commodification’ of western society.
However, it is widely believed that in these past years, society has more than ever evolved in a society dominated by consumer culture. The past two decades their could be witnessed a ‘renewed and quite astonishing faith in the endless capacity of markets to coordinate human behaviour or activity with a range and a precision beyond that of any other system, institution or social process.’Jeroen van Andel As a consequence there has been a boost of what has come to be known as ‘consumer culture.’ A culture which is based on the ideology of ‘non-interference’ - ‘the view that one should be able to buy what one likes, where one likes, and as much as one likes, with nary a glance from the government, neighbors, ministers or political parties.’24 A culture which, according to Schor, combines ‘a deep respect for the consumer’s ability to act in her own best interest and an emphasis on the efficiency gains of unregulated consumer markets: a commitment to liberty and the general welfare.’25 This consumer culture has become so dominant in our current western society that Benjamin Barber has characterized our time as ‘our era of hyperconsumerism.’26 In this era of hyperconsumerism free markets are favored over government regulation and privatization has become the dominant ideology in western society.27 The past decades it appears that various elements of this ‘consumer culture’ have been adopted by higher education institutes as well.
6. Consumerism and Higher Education The commodification and marketization of daily life has also touched (higher) education. In various ways has (higher) education been influenced by the ubiquity of ‘consumer culture.’ Education, not long ago provided solely as a public good, is provided more and more by private institutions, schools have become the new frontiers for corporate advisors and education itself seems to have transformed into ‘a commodity.’ However, one of the most comprehensive changes in education is the transformation from student into customer.
Today higher education institutes seem more than ever occupied with themes such as ‘customer groups,’ ‘customer’s needs and wants’ and ‘customer satisfaction.’ What is more, western higher education institutes appear to have put a great faith in one of the core elements of ‘consumer culture:’ a deep respect for the ability of students to act in their own best interest.
Not long ago an undergraduate curriculum entailed a largely fixed course of study. However, nowadays many colleges and universities enable students to choose and select the education that best matches their preferences or needs.28 Schwartz states that the modern university has been transformed into a kind of ‘intellectual shopping mall.’Today many higher education institutes offer their students a wide array of different ‘goods’ and allow and often even encourage students to ‘shop’ around until they find what they like.30 Lorenz therefore states that there has been a transformation from Humboldtian University to a kind of ‘McUniversity.’ However, what can be said about the consequences of the adoption of consumer culture in higher education More in particular, what can be said 102 From Academic to Customer about the relation between consumerism and the Humboldtian concept of Bildung 7. Consumerism and Bildung In general the concept of Bildung is ascribed to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Influenced by the grand ideas of the French Revolution Humboldt saw Bildung as one of the principle tasks of education.
That should be used as instrument to give the concept of mankind as rich a content as possible.32 The principle goal of Bildung through education was to prepare the individual for the requirements of future life in all its richness.
Therefore Bildung is not just about knowledge and skills, but much more about values, ethos, personality, authenticity and humanity.