Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Working in Business as Opposed to Being a Student

When I began working in business, shortly after receiving my bachelor's degree, I experienced a pleasant surprise: I immensely enjoyed what I was doing. Indeed, I felt that working in business was a lot more fun than being a student, so much so that it took nearly six-and-a-half years before I could summon the strength to go to graduate school. I have related this story to a number of people, but never had a good explanation or understanding why being an employee is so much more enjoyable than being a student.

The answer is not the money difference—being paid to do work as opposed to paying the school for an education. It is the feeling of importance. The work itself may not be top-level decision making, which in my case it was not, but every stroke of my pencil mattered. It made the difference in customer satisfaction and company earnings. Everyone in the company contributed to both. The sense of importance also came from the familial atmosphere I experienced with my co-workers and boss, an atmosphere I experienced in every business that I worked for but have not found in any of my academic jobs. Is there something fundamentally different about business and education?

Ask a group of students if they feel important in their school and you are likely to get a blank or incredulous “are you kidding?” stare (Glasser, p. 45).  Importance in school, they say, comes from their friends or their extracurricular activities (sports, music, theater, etc.). As a student they feel more like a number on a roster, not overly seen or respected as a person, but as just another piece of produce to be graded and sorted. This, of course, comes from the bureaucratic nature of government-run and -regulated education (1, 2, 3). Grading and sorting are among the main functions of bureaucracy. Students do not feel important because they are not treated the way customers are in privately-run businesses.* Students are not customers, but they should be.

How are customers treated in private businesses? The slogans “customers are number one” and “the customer is always right” gives an indication of the importance of customers to businesses and the importance customers should feel when patronizing most well-run businesses. But what businesses can we compare to education to see what an education customer in a free market might feel? There are today several (relatively) free markets in education. Private lessons, whether piano, personal training, or tutoring, are one. The customer is given the instructor’s full attention and is rarely graded or made to suffer rewards and punishments. Importance is built-in to this type of learning.

Team lessons, especially in sports, are another. While softball and basketball coaches do evaluate players for best position and first or second team, they usually do not employ rewards and punishments of the type that carry the weight of school grades. The players, as a result, have fun working as a team to beat the other teams. There are small private classes, sometimes held in an instructor’s living room or in a rented hotel room. Customers feel relaxed and important to the instructor because they are there just to learn and have fun in the process. They are not there to be graded or tested, the source of anxiety and decreased feelings of importance. Finally, there are large private classes—lectures—sometimes given in hotel ballrooms. No grades, no tests. The customers are there to learn and take away from the lecture what they want. They are important to the lecturer for the revenue he or she earns. They may not have personal contact and receive personal attention from the lecturer, but the atmosphere nevertheless is pleasant—far more pleasant than the impersonal grad-student run megasections many of us have endured in research universities.

Clearly, it is the critical, comparative grade-and-sort atmosphere of government-run education that eliminates almost any chance for the student (customer) to acquire a sense of importance. Throw in at the K-12 level the compulsory attendance laws and you have students, especially at the secondary level, who have the sense of being in jail.**

The bureaucratic nature of education also makes it difficult for faculty to enjoy the familial atmosphere I experienced in private businesses. As professors, we have to fill out the right forms (and get our hands slapped if we don’t) and comply with the myriad rules. Customer satisfaction and earnings are irrelevant, so there is no benchmark of performance or importance. Conflict frequently erupts with the lack of a common goal. With guaranteed lifetime employment, the “family” sometimes becomes enmeshed in what seems like a marriage “without the possibility of divorce.” The stakes in such a situation have become too small.

* I include private universities, including the for-profits, in the category of bureaucratic education, because they are regulated and therefore their culture is controlled and defined by the government.

** Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo, “It’s Tough to Tell a High School from a Prison,” Psychology Today, June 1975. Also, see John Holt, The Underachieving School.

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