The McDonalds-ification of Higher Education

There is an approach to learning that is corroding education, especially higher education, in the US: I call it the “McDonalds-ification of Education.”

Hamburger_University“Fast food” has been around for a long time. The ancient Romans had it. But McDonald’s raised it to a high art. You come in, you look at the menu up on the wall while you are in line, you order, and you immediately get your food. In many ways, McDonald’s has become a paradigm for how our consumer society works. The internet is basically McDonald’s for information and entertainment. Pick what you want, get it immediately, move on to the next thing. There is nothing wrong with any of this in principle. I love the internet. And I love an occasional Big Mac. But as the Greek said, “μηδὲν ἄγαν” — do nothing in excess! As the documentary Super Size Me (2004) showed, a consistent diet of McDonald’s has the potential to kill you. And if you treat surfing the web as the paradigm for all information gathering, it can kill your mind.

What concerns me is that you find a tendency among students to think that education is about being given a menu of easily digestible ideas, picking out one that you like, and swallowing it in one gulp. But education is not about just picking out an opinion or theory that you find appealing at first glance. Deep ideas sometimes seem implausible at first, and shallow ones can have the specious appearance of being incisive. (I like to remind my students that it was not just dogmatism that led people to oppose the Copernican theory that the Earth goes around the Sun. After all, it doesn’t feel like the Earth is spinning like a top while wheeling around the Sun, does it?)

I teach philosophy, and students often walk into class with the assumption that philosophy is all about hyperbolic doubt. How do you know that the world is not an illusion? How do you know that 2+2=4? How do you know that pain is bad? Doubt can be useful if used, like Descartes did, as a therapeutic tool. “Let’s doubt such-and-such, and see if we can discover what grounds for belief there are.” But doubting everything is a dead end. The most productive technique of philosophy is dialogue. Begin with some issue on which another person disagrees with you. Ask your interlocutor (or read up on) why she holds that position. If she gives a good reason, agree with her! If not, try to come up with a response that should convince her that she is mistaken. Find out what she says (or would say) in response, and…. This process seldom comes to an end quickly or decisively, and it is hard to do well. But it promotes a deeper understanding of others, and a skill for careful thinking that no other kind of education can produce. (And what if we lived in a world of people who tried hard to understand and convince, rather than kill, one another?)

Too often, though, students who have been raised in our McDonalds-ified civilization find this intellectual discipline alien or even offensive. They hear an idea they like — the more glib the idea the more appeal it is likely to have to the unreflective — and counterarguments bounce off them like pebbles hitting titanium. A society of instant gratification is not a society of deep thought. In fact, the dogmatic skepticism or casual relativism that passes as “philosophy” in some intellectual circles is attractive precisely because it insulates people from thinking. I can’t count how many times a student has tried to shut down a philosophical discussion at precisely the point at which it was becoming difficult and personally challenging by saying, “Who’s to say what the truth is?”

The spirit of Pontius Pilate is alive and well, and he is enjoying his intellectual chicken McNuggets!

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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