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Students & Their Families “Are Not Consumers”

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This morning, Paul Krugman at The New York Times wrote a column about health care titled “Patients Are Not Consumers.”

I’m going to reprint portions of his piece with a few words struck-out and replaced. Let me know what you think:

How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients students and their families as “consumers”? The relationship between patient students and their families and doctor teachers used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care education as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

What has gone wrong with us?

….The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors teachers are just “providers” selling services to health care education “consumers” — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts & Articles Explaining Why Schools Should Not Be Run Like Businesses.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

5 Comments

  1. Right on Larry! Send your rewrite to Krugman!

  2. By coincidence a friend on another board had already pointed me towards the original article and asked for my opinion. I had replied that it’s the same in education. I’ve even heard of it in other areas, for example prisoners in jail being referred to as customers or clients.
    It’s the same here in the UK.
    It comes about because modern institutions are forced by circumstances to pay a lot of attention to funding models and finances. This causes a serious strain between the people who provide the actual service (teacher/doctor/prison warder) and the institution that pays their wages.
    It certainly did for me. My view of where my responsibilities lie (with the students) has for some time been at odds with the college view that my primary responsibility is to the college management. It’s been a large contributory factor in my decision to leave my job at the college and take an overseas post in China. I know of quite a few teachers who have taken similar decisions for similar reasons.

  3. …and yet we will discuss the reform efforts until there is only combative dialog, and avoid discussing the values of our society that are the root of the problem.

    Further, if we believe that corporate/political reformers in the education arena want to ensure constant discussion of the bandaids instead of the root problem, consider the lack of discussion and downright posture of ignoring the social sciences in reform efforts. When we get rid of the study of history, governance, religion, philosophy, and the other social sciences, it is easy to avoid discussions of values.

  4. On one hand, I do agree with you. But I think there’s something pretty powerful, actually, about labeling students as consumers when we live in a consumer-focused society. That means that students — and not administrators, district procurement officers, tech coordinators, teachers — get to have a say in what happens. There are plenty of business transactions that happen in schools — what textbooks get purchased, what appears on the lunch menu, etc — that occur without students’ input, even if they are, in fact, the end-users.

    I realize there’s a lot of danger in thinking about education this way. But there are also profound shifts going on (mostly in technology, which is admittedly what I’m most familiar with) that put the emphasis on the consumer — think Apple here — rather than the IT department — think Microsoft. That gives consumers a lot of power. I’d like to see students have that power too. Considering we’re in a capitalist, consumerist culture, I think there may be power in the position of consumer. You get to choose to “buy” or not.

  5. I like the line you are developing here Larry but really wanted to pose a question about the power attributed to the position of consumer in Audrey’s response.
    Do we really believe that genuine power resides in tne act of choice/consumption? A consumer gets to choose between the goods and services on offer. To select from the market place or menu. However, they rarely get to write the menu. Dining on exactly what you want either means being rich enough to employ a first class chef or cooking for yourself. In short the powerful own the means of production and empowerment consists in taking control of the means of production.

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