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It seems that every time I open a newspaper these days, an educational supplement falls out. Tucked between headlines about Garib Raths, nuclear non-proliferation, Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunctions and which batsmen should open the Indian innings are articles and advertisements touting educational institutions that teach you everything from how to become a flight attendant to the finer points of financial management. Simply measured by the column inch, education has become big business.
And that's the problem. Somewhere in the past few decades, along with an almost universal trend toward faith in market forces and the deification of management gurus, education has taken on the trappings of corporate culture. School and university administrators, along with some faculty, now communicate in businesspeak. The first time it struck me was when I started teaching at a university, almost 20 years ago. One of the deans stood up in a faculty meeting and announced, with a straight face: "We deliver an educational product on a cost-effective basis." And now, just yesterday, a friend and veteran teacher of literature complained to me that she was asked to define her classroom "deliverables".
NO! Education doesn't work that way. Writers like George Orwell have explained the treacherous politics of language, and if educators begin to speak like aspiring CEOs, then learning will suffer the consequences. Education is a highly professional field and good teachers are as well-trained and gifted as any market analyst, but the learning process cannot be quantified and calibrated on a spreadsheet. Schools and universities should be able to measure themselves but not with the values and instruments of a profit-making company. One of the greatest dangers of adopting the language of business manuals is that ultimately, the goal of education will shift from ideals of universal knowledge to a quest for personal prosperity.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with prosperity, or with business and marketing. But to believe that education can be fostered by the same principles that apply in a corporate boardroom is to confuse pedagogy with profiteering. Learning happens through experiment, conversation, reading, writing, and very often, by accident. Certainly, it is not entirely predictable and what occurs outside a classroom may be more valuable than the carefully prescribed lessons outlined on a blackboard. A formal lecture can be the most stimulating educational experience. It can also numb and deaden the mind. All that a school administration can do to ensure excellence and success in education is to hire the best teachers and admit the best students. After that, the prime responsibility of deans and principals is to provide a safe and positive environment in which learning can take place. They must not think of students or parents as "clients" and teachers or professors as "middlemen" who retail a product.
Accountability. Assessment. These are words that matter in education. But accountability must not be governed by the bottomline. It cannot be determined by a pocket calculator or even a computer. Accountability must be understood in human terms. It is as much judgement based on poetry and philosophy as common sense. Assessment has always been a part of teaching but it must be recognised that the best assessment of a student's performance and potential can only be made by the teacher. External testing and examinations may provide a basis for comparison with other schools, but the results cannot be interpreted like a stockmarket. Students are not shares to be traded up or down and teachers are not brokers.
No matter what my former dean may have suggested, or the advertisements in newspaper supplements imply, education is not a product that can be marketed or delivered on a cost-effective basis.
(The author has taught writing for over 15 years at the American University in Cairo, and at MIT.)