College education has changed a lot in the past two decades. While the demand for bachelor’s degrees has ballooned, many institutions have struggled to keep enrollment up in an increasingly aggressive market. Extension campuses and online/modular classes have made it possible for larger universities to poach student pools who previously attended local colleges. T.V., websites, and social media are flooded with ads for higher learning institutions all clawing for students.
It’s a sad transformation: the four-year bachelor’s degree is becoming a consumer good. Understandably, institutions have to make money in order to stay in existence, and that means they need students. However, in order to make themselves more marketable, many of today’s colleges have made a drastic shift in the way they educate. In order to sell their brand, they have turned the four-year degree into what the student wants, not necessarily what the student needs. Many colleges and universities communicate this reality to students: we exist to help you get what you want.
This shift is not only taking place in our institutions of higher learning. Teachers in grade school are feeling the pressure to engage students according to student-defined methods of education. Since students want to watch YouTube clips and be passively entertained, teachers feel they have no other choice than to amuse our next generation to death. Traditional educational models are obsolete. “Our kids are a visual generation,” we are told, “Their attention span is less than five minutes. You have to keep things moving to keep them engaged.”
Historically, education was as much about disciplining a student’s mind, heart, and soul as it was about communicating information. Before the rise of modern media (e.g., video, internet, t.v.), the interaction between student and teacher was an essential part of the educative experience. Students learned to submit to the authority of their teacher. Teachers determined not only the content but the structure and purpose of coursework. Curriculum was not only about growth in knowledge but also growth in maturity.
At the turn of the twentieth century, John Dewey advocated democracy in education which began to alter the authority structure in the classroom. No longer were teachers to discipline students’ minds with set patterns of thought. They were to be a catalyst to help students discover their fullest potential. What began as a push for equality in the classroom quickly began to look like student-centered education.
Each successive decade has put the teacher in an increasingly marginalized role. These days, the burgeoning field of online education often puts students in a virtual classroom where the instructor is eliminated altogether. Is this so bad? Certainly students should be engaged and excited about their learning. Part of maturity is the ability and desire to grow. But does maturity come about in a vacuum? Does the absence of an influential teacher in a student’s life free them to spread their wings? Or does it leave them imprisoned in close-minded immaturity?
The problem is that students need discipline and maturity in order to grow into self-motivated, open-minded individuals. This will only come about through the timeless relationship of teacher and student. Allow me to quote from Dr. T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns:
The barrier to education is the student himself–his parochialism, his laziness, his reluctance to abandon his current viewpoints, his resistance to disciplined intellectual effort, his complacent self-satisfaction with his present attainment and understanding. Nearly every capable educator in the history of the human race has realized that the least important thing we educators do is disseminate information, which is (especially now) widely available in less expensive formats. What capable educators have always attempted to do is to infect their students with a love of learning and a hatred of parochialism.
By definition, students have teachers. A student is one as he submits to the one or more authorities from which he learns. Student-driven education is not wrong. However, student-driven education should not mean the student dictates to his instructors how he will and will not be taught. Student-driven education in higher learning should mean the student has the freedom to choose his instructors. In a successful university environment, the teacher/student relationship is the willing submission of the student to a willing teacher. A student sits in the seat of humble submission, not upon a throne of proud despotism.
Modern Consumer-Driven Education.
Our modern system is in reality consumer-driven education. When students dictate the atmosphere and methods to be used in the classroom, the teacher is no longer a teacher but a powerless facilitator. Students are no longer students but passive consumers of banal information. As Gordon emphasizes, teachers are not mere pipelines of facts. Good teachers will exercise scholarly discipline over students to help them overcome the complacency of their own minds and the tendency to believe that they already know everything.
When colleges market to students by appealing to their outlandish sense of self-importance and their penchant for close-mindedness, they probably will see their enrollments swell. However, the essential teacher/student relationship will have been slaughtered on the altar of profitability, and the true teachers will migrate elsewhere–to the rare schools where students still have hints of humility and an awareness of their own need for guidance.
The teacher/student model was used by Jesus himself. The words “Follow me” are not the call to become Jesus’ equals or to dictate to Jesus how he will teach us. Discipleship is complete submission to the Teacher. As the teacher/student relationship continues to deteriorate, discipleship in our churches will feel increasingly alien to our culture. Christians do not have the freedom to redefine our relationship with Christ according to cultural fads or movements. Jesus’ invitation should continually ring in our ears: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).