Education in the age of consumerism

Education in the age of consumerism

Modern man is a voracious consumer. His ancestors, though consumers of sorts, were different from him. Several among them, who could afford, ate not only to live, but also for pleasure. They had banquets, festive meals etc. 

Modern consumerism is altogether a different thing. The consumerist of today is an insatiable novelty-seeker. He is forever dissatisfied with the given. He abandons as quickly as he acquires. He is caught in the unending cycle of longing, acquiring and getting disillusioned. So, he changes gadgets fast enough to keep up with the latest fantasies proffered by the market. Ask the advertisement gurus, if you are not convinced.  

The modern consumer, they will tell you, is a “hedonist,” one who craves to experience in reality the pleasures he dreams of in his imagination. He prefers to live insulated from the harsh realities of the world. There is only one way he knows to handle the dissonance between his dream-life and the world of realities: The acquisition of exotic products, mythologised by extravagant advertising.

Advertising today seeks to promote products by linking them, not with the satisfaction of needs, but with illusory dreams. Those who live in their dream-worlds are pleasure despots, entitled to take the world on their terms. Educationists who do not understand this reality are headed for a heartbreak.

They will be hurt by what they face routinely. Consider the following: St Stephen’s College has had, for years, the rule that all resident students are required to be in their rooms by 10 pm, which was not felt, till a few years ago, as an unfair curtailment of a student’s liberty. This rule rests on two considerations. First, it helps if the students settle down with their studies by 10pm. Second, there could be security risks if students – especially lady students – roam around past that hour. However, about three years ago, it was suddenly discovered to be a measure willfully discriminatory to the women students. 

Now, it is in vain that you try to reason this out to anyone; some of the reasons being: The student-as-consumer is, by definition, the king. She has every right to take the institution on her terms. Who dares meddle with kings or queens? A king is to be obeyed, not reasoned with, much less disciplined. Reasoning belongs to the world of reality; whereas the modern consumer lives in a world of dreams.

There is no meeting point between the two. Every attempt to reason out an issue will be scorned and further grievances spun out of the reasons you offer. It is in the nature of dreams that, “limits” which characterise the world of realities, are perceived as unfair and oppressive. This rules out the scope for dialogue. From the consumerist standpoint, dialogue, if agreed to, means: “You sit and listen. Accept my will. You are a dictator if you don’t.” 

Also, interest in the life of the institution declines. Life in the best of institutions is predictable. It does not change day-by-day like products do. As compared to the market, the best institutions are orthodox. Orthodoxy is an offence to novelty-craving consumerists. (Imagine buying last year’s model!) Whatever is hot and swinging in the market – products and fashions – is the thing. Those who display anything out-dated – in taste, in terminology – are obsolete. They deserve to be sidelined if not ridiculed. 

The consumer is, by definition, impatient and intolerant of everything that chafes on his tastes and interests. The old-fashioned idea of “doing to others what you would, that they should do to you” is a riddle to him.  He expects to be indulged, not disciplined, obliged or ethically perturbed. It is in vain that you cater to his all-round growth; for growth is a goal incompatible with the immediacy of pleasure.  

Consequence of consumerism 

The teacher-student relationship suffers. This all-important relationship stands on two pillars – students’ reverence for teachers and a teacher’s love for his students. These are reciprocal, if one suffers, the other suffers too. When that happens, the student-teacher relationship gets re-organised on the basis of quid pro quo. So, the teachers indulge the students with unmerited favours to purchase popularity as a substitute for reverence. 

The learning environment is vitiated. “Environment” is the sum total of all that an educational institution embodies. It defines actions and reactions, attitudes and expectations. The rebelliousness and indifference of students progressively activate indifference in teachers, who come to see teaching only as a livelihood. Students become the raw materials in the education industry. They cease to have any intrinsic value. They are endured and forgotten. 

The sense of belonging and bonding together is lost. Bonding is the last sentiment a consumer wants to develop. If your college is a mall, you go there only to pick and choose at will. You pay the bill and depart. What bonding? Why waste time talking of belonging? 

All cherished ideals and goals become redundant. Nation-building, social transformation, character-building, or building a better society, or engaging in the goal of perfecting human nature,  all of these sound banal and unreal. 

What we dare not realise in the process, is that, when educational institutions become malls, everyone ends up a loser, most of all the student. The market has, ironically, made our native vision of education urgently relevant. But it takes guts, not less than literacy, to read the writing on the wall. 

(The author is Principal, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi)

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