Monday, January 19, 2004

Are students customers? 

No, says Joe Nathan:
The best relationship between educators and families is via partnership.

And this is not at all the same kind of thing that's involved when a family goes to a restaurant or a grocery store to buy food, or a department store to buy clothing. Although I may return to the business if I'm pleased with the food or clothing, there is no need for ongoing conversation between the businessperson and me.
That's simply wrong. Prices are communication of relative scarcity; excess or unplanned inventory accumulation is a communication of mistaken conceptions about demand. Mass customization, increasing in the world today, requires more ways to cheaply transmit information about what is possible and what is desirable. What ways are there for professors and students, teachers and parents, to communicate these?
The phrase, "the customer is always right" is another problem when applied to education. Some businesses say that when the customer is dissatisfied with a purchase, the item can be returned for cash or credit.

But with all due respect, families, parents, grandparents or whoever is caring for the youngster are not always right. None of us � educators, family members, whoever � is always right.
No, but that's true in any business. Should the customer who buys "the wrong computer" or the "wrong shoes" be prevented from it? To some extent, yes. Software firms bundle their products with features and not allow complete picking-and-choosing between them. Why? Because they may have better information about the functionality of the programs. They may not want to sell you the product the way you want. That's fine -- and if you don't want the product the way they make it, you shop somewhere else. But why should consumer sovereignty not be the basis of the contract between parent and teacher?
Overall, the situation is more complex than simply proclaiming, "The customer is always right."
Consumer sovereignty doesn't mean that. It means "the customer has the right to be wrong, and accept the consequences thereby." When someone with governmental power (read: coercion) says "I know better; trust me," the first reaction is skepticism. And rightly so.

(Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.)