Letters to the Editor

Students Can Behave Too Much Like Customers

March 28, 2010

To the Editor:

I welcome Bill Sams's concerns ("The Problem With College? Too Few Customers," The Chronicle, March 14), but unless the letter was written as a very clever satire, I think his views of students and his suggestions about customers are both off-track.

A good student is not someone to whom something is done (teaching), but rather someone who does something for themselves (learning). Some of our students do adopt the former attitude, and approach their classes as if they can be passive recipients of knowledge transfer. But in doing so, they are behaving too much like customers, not too little like them. They believe they can simply pay their tuition and be handed an A-grade education, much like a customer can hand over cash and receive Grade A eggs from the grocer.

The service-provider analogy to which Mr. Sams refers can be somewhat useful, but only when we imagine the student as a client of a professional service, not a customer of a mundane retailer. Consider accountants, lawyers, and engineers. Clients pay their fees and expect high-quality professional service in return. But the professionals exercise their expert judgment in deciding what services the client needs and how to provide them, and then the client is responsible for implementing the advice. Accountants, for example, help business clients track their financial affairs. But whether a client's business is well managed and makes a profit (an A), or is unsuccessful and suffers a loss (an F) is mostly up to the client, not the accountant.

Michael J Armstrong
Associate Professor
Faculty of Business
Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario