Why it doesn’t make economic sense to run education like a business

If you have sent a child to college lately, or gone yourself, you know that high costs are a problem.

This situation has led a lot more people today to think that education ought to be run more like a business.  At first glance, this makes sense.  Education is expensive.   It often produces students with questionable academic qualities.  Businesses, meanwhile, are very good at cutting costs, increasing efficiency, and innovating to produce better products.  So, it is thought, we should think about students as “customers,” and education as a “product.” Apply business principles to education, and we will bring costs down and produce a better product!  Everybody wins!  Happy ending!


Apply business principles to education and we will produce a worse product.  In fact, right now we may be producing a worse product and making education more expensive because we are increasingly treating education like a business.

"Student" or "Customer?"  Stay tuned for the answer.

“Student” or “Customer?” Stay tuned.

Education is a different animal.  Yes, there are economic dynamics to education that we need to think about carefully.  But if we actually take a close look at how things work on the ground – in the classroom – we will see that students don’t behave like customers in a capitalist society.  Nor do we improve education in the same way that we improve economic products.

Adam Smith should be taught but not implemented in the classroom. Adam Smith (as you all remember very well from your history courses, right?) was the Enlightenment thinker who laid out many of the essential principles of modern capitalism.  According to Smith, all of society benefits if businesses operate with a free hand in a system of competition.  Because a business owner wants to make more money, he or she (Smith did not think about “she,” actually) will do what can be done to lower costs, increase efficiency and produce a better product.  Customers will get lower costs and better products.  The business owner makes money.   “He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” wrote Smith.  Everybody wins!   Happy ending!

But that doesn’t work in the classroom.  (Some would argue it doesn’t really work that well as a system of economics, but that’s a different issue).

To keep the reading more manageable, I’ll lay out my arguments over the next few blogs.  Tomorrow, I’ll post Barlow’s Law:  “Students Don’t Want Their Money’s Worth.”

(It’s my blog, so I was going to name the law after myself.  But I have to admit that I first remember hearing this phrase many years ago in a conversation with the late Jack Barlow, who was a history professor at Huntington University.  So I shouldn’t really name it after myself.  Rats.)

How Mad Magazine helped my Christian faith

I watched too much TV in my youth.  I know that now, because I have a frightening number of commercials from the 1970s branded into my head.  And they won’t go away.  A very small sample from this corner of my brain:

“When it’s time to relax…(when it’s time to relax), one thing stands clear…(beer after beer)…Mil-ler tastes too good to hurry through…”

Parrot squawks:  “Ring around the collar!”  Voiceover: “Those dirty rings.  You try scrubbing them out.  You try soaking them out.  And you still get…” Parrot, again:  “Ring around the collar!”

“It’s the Pepsi generation!  Comin’ at ya.’  Goin’ strong.  Put yourself behind a Pepsi.  You’ll be living.  You’ll belooooooong.”

Yes, when I’m 97 I’ll be able to sing the lyrics to a Mustang II commercial from 1974 but I won’t be able to remember the names of my daughters.  The fact that these ads are indelibly lodged in my brain is just one indication of how consumerism seeps into our souls.

But in my misspent, spent and well spent youth, I did have a resource that helped counteract the mind-numbing effects of consumerism:  Mad magazine.

For most of 6th, 7th and 8th grade I had a paper route that provided me with extra cash.  I chose to spend a certain proportion of that money on a Mad magazine subscription.  I also read every Mad  book from the 1950s and 60s that I could get my hands on.

Little did I know that this would help my Christian faith.

One may not think of Mad as an encouragement to holiness.  But God works in mysterious ways.  I read Mad because I thought it was funny.  But unbeknownst to me, it slowly sharpened my sense of satire.  Mad was the only place that I encountered a satire of consumerism and advertising.

Satire can be a useful thing, because it helps to point out the absurdity in things that we would not notice otherwise.  Mad developed in me a sense that there were certain aspects of American culture that ensnared us in ways we did not recognize — the lure of status symbols, the sweet deception that materialism will deliver a fulfilling life, the incessant banality of ads heard over and over, the subtle but powerful manipulations embedded in advertising – these are things that are really difficult to recognize.

In “My Fair Ad-Man,” Frank Sinatra is transformed from a beatnik to a Madison Avenue ad executive.








Mad made me laugh at them.  My younger brother and I then made our own jokes about these cultural forms:  who was Rula Lenska, anyway, and why should we think we should buy VO5, just because she said so?

I should point out that Mad magazine did not, by itself, strengthen my Christian maturity in this area.  Several other factors in my life played key roles, including an education at a Christian college and six years of living in a culture (Kenya) that had not yet been inundated with wall-to-wall consumerism.  And Mad also probably stoked my sins of cynicism and self-righteousness.  But I give it credit for giving me a lens that enabled me to see things in American culture that I might have been blind to, otherwise.

To put it in biblical terms, I’ll pull out Romans 12:2:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Christians are not supposed to be conformed to this world.  Among other things, I take this to mean that completely conforming to consumerism can be harmful to our souls, our minds and our society.

This is a problem we all face.  Consider what emerging adults (ages 18 to 24) think about consumerism.  A study by Christian Smith finds that 61% of emergent adults are very content with consumerism and see no real problems with it.  Another 30% have some concerns, but believe that there is really nothing anybody can do about it.   That means that 91% are essentially conforming to this part of the world.  They do not see any reason why they should not unthinkingly embrace consumerism, or do not have any sense that there is anything that can be done about it.  Most emergent adults believe consumerism just makes them happy and that they’d be happier if they could afford more things.  Of course, those of us who are older cannot lay the blame for this on emergent adults, for they are reflecting the culture they live in.  This is us.

Some telling quotes from the study:

“If you want it, buy it.  There’s certain things that are just, I think, unnecessary. But, you know, if you think it’s necessary in your life and you can afford it, more power to you.”

“I think everyone has what they like…If you have a thousand shoes, that is all you.  If you want a thousand shoes, cool, that is all what you want…I don’t want to judge someone else and say you can’t or shouldn’t have that.”

“I guess I don’t really think about consumerism as far as its effects on society.”


I’m telling you, kids these days should be reading Mad magazine.



The Impact of Trix Cereal on Christianity, Marriage, Civil Life, Education and Just About Everything Else

In 1954, General Mills introduced Trix cereal to the American public.  This was the most significant event of the 20th century.

Really? More significant than the 1952 election? More significant than the 1929 stock market crash? More significant than Watergate?

OK, I’m overstating things here, but I’m actually pretty serious about this.  The introduction of Trix cereal may rank in my top ten list of most significant events of the 20th century.  Maybe the top five.

Why?  Because Trix was the first multi-colored breakfast food.

Get it?  Probably not.

Think about why General Mills produced a multi-colored breakfast food and why they marketed it with that advertising campaign familiar to all Americans, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!”

Get it?  Not quite, I’m betting.

Think about this:  why did General Mills think that it would work to advertise to 4 year-olds during Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoons?  Do 4 year-olds have the means to run out to the grocery store and buy Trix?  Do 4 year-olds make the decisions about how the family income is spent?

Admit it. You want this.

Get it?  I’m guessing we’re starting to get there.  Remember what you were like at age 4 in the grocery store and you saw something you wanted?  Or have you have observed 4 year-olds in grocery stores?  It is a fascinating and rather unsettling sight.  Watching 4 year-olds in the grocery aisle with their parents is like watching wildlife documentaries of elks fighting fellow elks for dominance.  The fight may begin and end quickly, but in those short, dramatic moments, we glimpse a compelling struggle of power, will, wits and cunning, as we wait to see who will come out on top.

A little historical background to epic grocery store battles:  In 1854 and 1754 and 1654 (and earlier, in just about everywhere around the world) children were producers in the family economy, but they were not major consumers.  In other words, most children helped the family economy by working at tasks like herding livestock, sewing, gathering eggs, carrying water, etc.  They did not make decisions about how household money would be spent.  By 1954, that pattern was reversing in most middle-class families.  Children produced very little to help the family income while becoming major players in deciding how the household income was spent.  Even 4 year-olds.  Amazing.

In other words, thanks to Trix cereal (and Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheels and Kool-aid and McDonald’s) all of us became consumers at a very young age.

Of course, I am using Trix cereal to represent a whole host of larger consumer trends at work.  Targeting children in advertising began a number of decades before 1954.  Plenty of other companies besides General Mills were joining in on this.  Economic prosperity gave families plenty of disposable income. The growth of new forms of mass media – radio and TV, for instance – made it possible for marketers to reach children in their homes.  But I use Trix cereal and 1954 as my representative example because the 1950s was the decade when all these forces came together in a powerful way in American society.

Sometimes, 4 year-olds choose Cinnamon Toast Crunch instead of Trix. Why? Because they can! They are consumers!

We have to ask an even more important question than the sheer economics of the thing:  what kind of people do we become if we are shaped as consumers from the moment we can comprehend a TV ad?  What does it mean to have a society in which consumerism holds formative influences on us as persons?

It means that we may enter into Christianity, marriage, civil life, education as consumers, rather than as disciples, spouses, citizens and students.  As consumers, we are primarily interested in what we can get out of these things and are less likely to ask what we can contribute to them.  It means we value things primarily on the basis of instant gratification and have little patience for self-sacrifice.  It means that if we get dissatisfied, we may be quick to dump one option and go shopping for another.  Does this happen?  As that big red Kool-Aid pitcher used to say in the ads, “Oh, yeahhhhhh!”

A number of people have commented about how consumerism has affected American Christianity.  Let me just point out one.  Thomas Bergler has written an important book entitled The Juvenilization of American ChristianityOne of the things he points out is that since the 1950s, evangelicals have effectively adapted the faith to the youth culture – a culture that is steeped in consumerism.  As a result, evangelicals have been much more effective than other Christian bodies in attracting youth to church.  The downside is that this sort of juvenile faith has spread through the adult levels of the church (think about all the ways that evangelicals want church to be “fun” and “exciting”).  Christians with this kind of faith have a hard time moving beyond a rather shallow, self-centered faith based on immediate gratification.  Why?  Trix cereal.

Do we tend to view marriage relationships in terms of what we can get out of it?  Are we, as a society, too willing to dump a spouse if we see a better product come along?   I have heard evangelicals blame a number of things for the rising divorce rates of the last half century: the absence of prayer in schools, homosexuality, and something as vague as a “decline in morals,” just to name a few.  We’re looking in the wrong places.  We should start by thinking about our Trix cereal ads.

Civil society?  In 1960 John F. Kennedy said, famously, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  It was a view of civil society that resonated with many Americans at that time.  In the 2000 presidential debate, an audience member asked the candidates, “How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?”  Think about this one.  It implies that as a voter I will make a choice based on a specific policy is tailored to a very narrow slice of the population who are just like me.  And did Americans in 2000 even notice that this is a very consumeristic approach to viewing civil life?  No, because this is an idea of civil society that resonated with many Americans, who all grew up enmeshed in consumerism.  “Silly President, tax policies are for 34-year old single persons with no dependents!”

Education?  Don’t even get me started.  I could describe how some students expect course offerings, class projects, and course expectations to conform to their personal schedules.  I hardly need to tell you that many students believe classes ought to entertain them.  Colleges feel compelled to offer a consumer lifestyle – good food, climbing walls, fun activities, stylish dormitories, exciting athletic programs – in order to attract students to come to their institution to get an education.  My daughter once received a postcard from a college whose entire message was that they were “#1 in Food and Fun” in Ohio. The postcard said absolutely nothing about education.  But food and fun?  Ah, yes, that is what college is all about, isn’t it, Silly Rabbit?

Trix cereal:  the most significant development of the 20th century.

Are Evangelicals Effective at Dealing with the Poor?

Feel free to chime in on this one.  We are going to try to understand evangelicals better.

This is kind of a funny project for me, since I identify myself as an evangelical.  I go to church with these folks.  And I study these people.  You’d think I’d have this figured out.

Well, this is what I do know: evangelicals are good at evangelism.

Granted, we have all probably run into a zealous evangelical or two somewhere in our life who awkwardly thrust a tract in our face or fired off personal questions about heaven and hell in the first sentence they ever addressed to us.  One might question the effectiveness of evangelistic efforts that make the Christian faith look as inviting as a colonoscopy.

But this has not been evangelicals’ main methodology.  Through a variety of other ways in the past couple of centuries, such as revivalism, evangelicals have been very effective in bringing others into their branch of Christianity.  Though evangelicals did not exist in any clear way in 1700, they now make up about a third of American society.  The vast majority of African Americans who have embraced Christianity in the last two centuries have come by way of evangelical churches.  During the last few decades, evangelical churches have been growing while mainline Protestant groups in the U.S. have been in decline.  In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the growth has been even more dramatic.  Evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, have grown remarkably in China, South Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Guatemala, Brazil and many other places.  Say what you will, evangelism has been very effective in these regions.

But let’s return to the question I’m kind of avoiding:  are evangelicals any good at dealing with the poor?

This is a more complicated question.  Here are a few different responses that I have come across:

A)  No.  Evangelicals mostly see the poor as people to be evangelized.  With a few exceptions, like the Sojourners crowd, white American evangelicals through the twentieth century looked with suspicion on anything that sounded like the “social gospel.”  And they looked with deeper suspicion upon any governmental programs aimed at the poor.   This “evangelism-only” impulse carried over into the missionary movement, so that Latino and African Christians in the last few decades have upbraided American evangelical missionaries for promoting a partial gospel that neglected issues of poverty.

B)   Yes.  Even though many evangelicals distanced themselves from social causes in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an upsurge of concern and activity since the 1970s.  Those Latino and African Christians who chided American evangelicals were evangelicals themselves, after all.  And no less of an evangelical icon than Billy Graham came on board with their theological arguments at the 1974 Lausanne Conference.  Since the 1960s, we have seen the growth of agencies like World Vision, Compassion International and Habitat for Humanity – organizations that were all founded by evangelicals and still receive the bulk of their support from evangelicals.  And evangelicals had always formed the backbone of older organizations directed toward the poor, such as the Salvation Army and rescue missions.

C) Not really.  Evangelicals often have good intentions, but their effectiveness is limited by an individualistic approach to poverty.  Thus evangelicals will send relief supplies to victims of earthquakes or hand out soccer balls on short-term mission trips, but these are temporary efforts that do little to address long-term systemic and structural issues of poverty.  Evangelicals need a theology that can address issues such as political inequities, class structures, economic systems and institutional racism.  Because they think individualistically and their theology is individualistic, evangelicals often don’t understand the role that structures and institutions play in poverty.

D)  Somewhat, but more indirectly than directly.  When evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, spreads among the poor of the world, it instills certain behaviors among converts that have economic benefits.  Converts develop habits of self-discipline and are transformed in ways that order is brought to disorderly lives.  Evangelical Christianity provides hope for the future, which encourages and empowers its adherents to persevere through difficult economic situations.

There are more explanations, but that seems like a good place to start.

What do you think?