In Chapter 3 of What Is College For? Elaine Tuttle Hansen proposes that the public purpose of higher education is to “emancipate students from the shackles of consumerist society,” to produce “liberated consumers.”
It’s a bold statement. And the phrase is contradictory at first blush. How can one be liberated from consumerist society and still be a consumer? How is consumerism related to the civic virtues that are the focus of the book?
It’s unavoidable that people consume, Ms. Hansen writes, but the liberated consumer does not consume mindlessly. Those who consume mindlessly are less able to make informed decisions about public issues. Those who are conscious of their need to consume and of the reasons they consume can make better judgments about public issues.
She writes that liberal-arts colleges are uniquely qualified to fulfill the public purposes of higher education because they offer an environment for students to develop into liberated consumers.
She describes the liberal-arts environment as difficult, complex, and slow. She argues that it promotes deep thinking, detailed focus, and critical questioning, qualities that foster civic-minded adults. It promotes active participation in ideas and knowledge rather than passive consumption of ideas and knowledge. The environment places an emphasis on friendship and community, on being a part of a greater whole.
Emphasizing the idea of liberated consumerism, Ms. Hansen says, is also a useful counter to the marginalization of the liberal-arts sector that she blames, at least in part, on the misalignment between liberal-arts goals and consumer pressures such as college rankings and costs.
What do you think of Ms. Hansen’s connecting civic virtue and freedom from consumerism? Do you agree that liberal-arts colleges are uniquely positioned to foster civic virtue? Do you think that liberal-arts characteristics are scalable and relatable to other educational settings?
Do you have thoughts about issues the chapter raises that I didn’t write about here?
Ultimately, the course of the discussion is up to you—there’s no need to stick to the above questions. Take the conversation to the comments section below. If you are so inclined, post your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #ChronBooks.