Competition Takes Away the Pain, Unfortunately
By: Ricky Bevington
Hearing a reference to Plato’s Republic is probably rare for most Student Affairs professionals except for maybe in a student’s response to the question whatcha reading? While reading the entire text might be a bit overboard, reading Allegory of the Cave, the section of the text that outlines Plato’s epistemological theory of how one gains deeper understanding of reality through education, should definitely be how you spend your next professional development hour. The allegory describes a man that can only truly understand the world after he leaves the shadows of the cave to see the world outside illuminated by the sun. Sounds pretty basic, but what is interesting is how exactly he leaves the cave:
And if someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true? (Republic 515e-516a)
Though we don’t literally drag our students, I’m sure “distressed and annoyed” is an epithet fairly applied to some students. And here is why: as pleasant and fun as we want education to be, true epistemological shifts, as Plato implies, are inherently painful. Educators don’t always want to admit it, but it is often the tension, the unsettledness, and the confusion evoked by the learning process that leads to the most dramatic growth. Struggle at a math problem or confusion with a person from a different background seems to be the only path to the appreciation of knowledge and the understanding of truth. Of course being inherently painful and intentionally painful are not the same. We don’t try to make the process hurt, but it does. Your eyes reluctantly adjust the sunlight as you are taken out of your comfort zone and only when on the other side can you appreciate the process fully.
In the realm of higher education, we position ourselves as the guides who have been out of the cave when we write learning outcomes for our students. Whether these learning outcomes are for specific academic departments, student affairs, or institutions as a whole, we write them to articulate the light at the end of the tunnel that is a college education.
Though Plato’s timeless epistemological model underlies this work, seldom do with think of these philosophical foundations when we craft learning outcomes to which we hope to lead—or I guess more appropriately, drag forcibly—our students. Yes, we continually strive to authorize our students and make them companions on this journey along which we seek deeper knowledge. But nevertheless, in crafting the outcomes we are positioning ourselves as guides, and when push comes to shove, we will lead out our students to the goals we know will benefit them.
Many questions come from the reaffirmation of this philosophical though under-tested truth, but one question seems particularly relevant for 21st century higher education: What is the impact of Plato’s words on supporters of increased competition and consumer models in higher education?
As we all know, and some lament, starting in the early 90’s with conversations surrounding quality management in the production of the higher education product, folks in the field began to identify students as consumers. And as we began to slowly apply more economic theories and business practices to our work with these consumers, Plato wept.
The argument justifying Plato’s tears is this: If students are consumers, they choose products based on preferences—students as consumers, particularly those who we already classify as needing the type of development provided by a college education, assess educational programs based on their preferences. Students have strong preference for solid education but also, I think we’d all agree, for minimal pain options. Therefore, among options perceived to be equal in terms of educational benefit, students will prefer the most painless educational option. Again, Plato weeps.
Plenty of nuance, obviously, is required especially if we acknowledge the imperfect knowledge at time of investment or generally irrational actors. But especially in today’s higher education market where not only competition thrives among institutions for first time college goers, but also competition persists to steal unsatisfied consumers away from a school which the consumers already attend, the argument remains as a specter walking our halls. As institutions compete for students, the institutions are recognizing that painless and hassle-free is attractive to students and thus institutions streamline their academic programs and spruce up their residence halls in hopes of competing not with a superior product, but a more attractive one. It may seem as though we are enhancing our product since we continue to write lofty learning outcomes and goals, but now Plato laughs at anyone who believes that. He sees through this ruse since we continue to allow our competitive spirit to make our educational efforts and learning outcome toothless.
The drive to make our institutions pain-free has the great potential to—if it hasn’t already—undermine our efforts to lead students to the learning outcomes we so meticulously craft. If in midst of being dragged out of the cave the option to not take a required core liberal arts course comes along, why not take that option? How about the option to have your own luxury dorm room free of the obligation to work through issues with a roommate? Or how about not having to ever walk to class, write a paper, take an exam? Why not leave your perceived tormentor behind to preference an institution where no dragging at all occurs? After all, you get the same product, right?
In its most simplistic form it seems the option is between easy and beneficial. Until someone shows me that Plato was wrong in connecting growing pains with epistemological upheaval, I will continue to be wary of catering to student preferences, and as a result, wary of competition in higher education. Our goal as higher education professionals is to educate, and to do that we need to reassure our students that the growing pains, scrapes, and bruises are all worth it as we transform ourselves. If we reassure our students, rather than placate them, we can continue to set high goals and lead our students to live in the light.
Ricky Bevington is a Residence Director at Stonehill College.