BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN
Published March 17, 2008
In a world of ever-increasing consumerism, a college education can be thought of as a commodity. Universities advertise to students - the consumers - who eagerly search out the best product. It lures us in with attractive accessories like new buildings, renovated football stadiums, high-profile research opportunities and plentiful resources. But these motivating factors are straying from the original selling point of universities - a quality education.
We aren't getting what we pay for, and it is distorting the consumer process. Over the past few decades, college attendance costs have risen exponentially. But instead of getting back a product of equal worth, our purchase obligates us to make endless sacrifices at the cost of our happiness, sanity and ability to function as individuals.
From the outside, the University of Michigan appears to be meeting its educational goals, and exceeding the achievements of similar schools. U.S. News and World Report has consistently ranked the University as the second- or third-best public university in the country. If a magazine thinks our four years are more valuable than someone else's four years, how can anyone disagree? But as a student who has been navigating the system for almost four years, I am deeply skeptical.
It seems like the University's decision-makers define a "superior" education as the ability to take in high school graduates and turn them into the most valuable economic units: people who are equipped with the "skills" to enter our capitalist society and perpetuate its existence.
But we are people - not products - and I'm sick of being looked at as such. While the University may be stuffing us with things that contribute to our overall personality packages, things that may make us more marketable and desirable as lower-level employees in massive corporate structures, it is severely lacking in providing us with the tools it theoretically should.
Last week, I took a senior survey that attempted to measure the ways the University has contributed to my being. It asked how I would compare my general knowledge, critical thinking abilities and understanding of social problems now to when I first entered this college. I answered that these qualities are "much stronger" now. But apart from the fact that it brought me closer to my peers, advisers and instructors, the University should not get the credit for these great personal accomplishments.
I have done the majority of my learning on my own, outside of the classroom at The Michigan Daily, in coffee shop basements, at professors' office hours and by having random conversations with interesting people.
Many students quickly learn that getting straight As and feeling intellectually and emotionally fulfilled are mutually exclusive - they don't happen at the same time. So instead, these students focus their energies on doing as little as they must to "get by." Bright-eyed freshmen become disillusioned as classes change from an opportunity to be engaged and enlightened to an excruciating chore. I can't help but feeling like I just got duped by some infomercial into buying an expensive gizmo that doesn't really do what the salesman said it would.
I guess as a college student with little experience in the "real world," I can't say for sure that this won't all have been worth it. But if the qualities I gained here are what really matter in the "real world," I'm not sure I like that world. While this school churns out economically valuable products waiting to be bought by the highest bidder, it also produces people of less intrinsic value.
The society we are being trained to emerge into is a dysfunctional one. Our values are misplaced and overstocked with consumerism. Americans are in what is arguably their most mentally unstable state in history. We should be learning how to change things, how to think critically and devise solutions that can and will solve the problems we will inherit from previous generations - or at the very least, we should learn how to stop contributing to them.
This is our education. We are the ones who are putting in our time, money and effort, and we should be getting back a product that we want - something that will fulfill our lives. But it seems as though we as students are the consumers of a product that attempts to turn is into products, rather than human beings undergoing personal growth and development.
Students are not robots. In order to avoid having a society full of them, our educators must stop reinforcing that quality.
Arikia Millikan is a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.