Customer on strike

by Yule Heibel on October 20, 2004

The following is something I wrote in response to a bunch of posts at Shelley‘s, which I first thought I’d post as a comment here, or maybe here but when it got longer and longer, seemed too overbearing for a comments board. But please, read these entries at Burningbird if you haven’t already. This topic has a history.

I am distressed by the drive to turn *everything* into a matter of marketplace. When Dave Winer wrote — apropos of the recent Jon-Stewart-on-Crossfire event that Shelley noted a few entries back — that “we” are customers of journalism, I was repelled. When he claimed that academia has learned this “lesson” because academia now treats students like customers (see comments), I knew that he didn’t understand academia *at all* — not at all, even one little bit — and I had to conclude that his citizens-as-customers analogy was just as misguided. The impetus to drive teaching at universities via a student-as-customer model has contributed more to grade-inflation and student “shopping” than to critical thinking. It has contributed to a general dumbing down, even though it hasn’t slowed down competition at the very top of the heap, because the really bright kids still understand that it takes elbows to carve out a position. But it has done not much at all — and please, ask the people in the trenches, the ones who get “rated” by all those dumb student evaluations and who have to adapt their content to this market — for conveying a critical, difficult, or challenging content. Aside from those few “top” students who excel because they’re smart enough and because they have to get into the right graduate programs, content — for the majority of “customers” — has to be fun, otherwise the “customer” (formerly known as “student”) will get upset.

Here’s what’s wrong with the emphasis on “customer” in situations that aren’t made for consuming: The “customer model” is conducive to peer-controlled thinking. The fatal error in advocating it in journalism, politics, academia, civics — any area that used to be “controlled” by ideals and/ or belief in authority — is that peer-controlled thinking doesn’t necessarily contribute to making those (previously authoritarian) areas more open or egalitarian, it just makes them more susceptible to peer pressure. It is reckless to think that authoritarianism could be challenged by a peer-controlled model of “the customer.”

You have to ask yourself how you feel about peer pressure.

Is it a good thing? Is it a liberating force? Is it a force that makes you conform?

Another thing we all know, at gut-level, is that peer pressure is incredibly intimate: it gets you here, right here. And I think that somewhere in the tension between the desire for intimacy and its rejection (as a means of survival, as a means of staying distinct), we can also find some of the descriptors of why and how women participate / compete in this weird blogging environment. We are constantly being told that our voices are supposed to be “unique” or “individual,” while at the same time we feel the peer-pressure to be just like blah-blah [fill in the blank]. Those who manage to square that circle in their pointy little heads win first prize. How else could anyone (an A-lister man, for example) have the gall to write entries on how to be successful in blogging, for example? And how else could that same (male) voice — which isn’t really all that unique or individual or interesting, because, like all his peers, he’s following a cookie-cutter pattern for popularity — consider himself “unique” and “individual”?

Sure, it’s more comfortable to talk about “customers” instead of “authority,” but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get around the latter. If you’re a parent, ask yourself how having kids-as-customers makes you feel. Perhaps — if you’re really modern — you’re already nearly completely there, or should I say: nearly nowhwere, as in: non-existant as a parent. C’mon, ‘fess up: aren’t you merely a content-provider to your kid’s needs? Isn’t your kid just a customer of your services? Yeah, that’s right. That’s where we’re going. Your kid has been in a peer-controlled environment ever since s/he entered school, which is why you’re feeling superfluous, too. So get on down, join your kid on the floor.

See? It’s uncomfortable when you really think about it, isn’t it? You have no real authority in your life or in your dealings with anyone, your kid knows that, and that is the way of customers: it’s a total peer-universe.

Frankly, I find it a bit creepy. I am a woman of a certain age who has sacrificed (yeeuw!, what an old-fashioned word!) a lot in the name of a certain project (parenthood), which, as far as she can tell entails the transmission of countless details of wisdom, insight, experience, tradition, and even a certain professional parental “je ne sais quois,” and I’ll be damned if I’m joining my kid on the floor for just any old reason. I want some distinction, some power of discrimination, between my life as a customer, my life as a sexual woman, and my life as a citizen or parent or teacher (authority figure). For example, I won’t ever be a customer of my husband’s sexual services (or vice versa). (That’s another thing Kant got wrong, by the way. And since Kant said something to that effect, you can see that the logic [of the market] is inherent in the whole rationalist project, can’t you?)

In whose interest is it that you should be a customer? That’s what you have to ask yourself. There are areas in life where it doesn’t make any sense to think of yourself as one. Even though it’s terribly uncool, it might be a better bet to think in other ways about authority. In terms of your own dignity, for starters. This is where we women have an historical insight, because we’ve traditionally been subjected to authority. Today, the logic of the market is the highest authority in the western world, with the ability to liberate as well as enslave. Perhaps the enslaving aspect of the logic of the market is going to succeed in levelling every single human activity to one common denominator (“customer”), but just for now, I don’t want a journalism that treats me as a customer –I’m a reader and a citizen. I want to fight to keep some areas of public or civic life (or sexual life, for that matter) distinct from market logic.

Remember that, Mrs. Shopper, next time you’re out there shopping (cue Monty Python). The Market wants you, but remember, too, that Mrs. Shopper is a man in drag.


maria October 20, 2004 at 1:14 pm

Yule, as usual, your take is sharp and goes right for the jugular. It was such a pleasure to read your essay, first thing this morning, when, in spite of the sunny breaks in the sky, my own mood was still as grey and dense as the clouds hanging around from yesterday’s storms.

Your point about the new concept of man as the customer is poignantly made when you bring it home, to the hearth, so to speak, and ask us to consider not just the parent as services provider to the child-customer, but the whole nature of peer relations, whose structures seemed to get poured into concrete in high school.

As a reader citizen myself, I am leaving my wallet at home when I go to the agora to. I am not looking to buy; nor am I selling.

maria October 20, 2004 at 7:09 pm

So I have been thinking some more about this business of parents needing to be aware of their children as customers…. And lo and behold, my mailman drops off the October 9 issues of the National Post (Canadian newspaper we still get … one to the right, I suppose, but still written in a language with vestiges of muscle and sinew, not just the botoxed-derm of platitudes…). Anyway, one of the front page articles, by Sarah Schmidt carries the catchy headline of “Today’s lesson: the parentariat.”

Now, it seems to me, that unlike you and I, Yule, a lot more of the parents out there may well be concerned less with their “authority,” in the sense of authenticity, but much more with being “customer” themselves. Customers of the new parenting culture. You know, the one in which their own image as parents is the only currency of exchange. A culture in which children are the products and the parenting is all about the packaging and the marketing.

On another note, I think it’s disgraceful to call these parents, who, according to the article want supermanage their children, the parentariat. What do these parents and the proletariat have in common?

Yule Heibel October 21, 2004 at 1:46 am

Maria, thanks for the feedback — and you should know that, when I hastily wrote this blog entry, I thought of your recent (email) encouragement to make some attempt to reawaken the analytical tools I used in my book (Reconstructing the Subject, wherein “the image of man” discourse of the late 1940s figures heavily), and to put these to use on a new project. I thought, Gosh, Maria’s right, here’s another “image of man” thing that needs dissecting! Yup, “man” as customer. Homo sapiens, homo ludens, homo faber, homo oeconomicus, and now homo …what? agoracus? No, too Greek. How do you say “shopper” in Latin? Emperor? Homo emperor? Well, that would fit with the times, no doubt about it. Hail King George and Homo emperor!

Interesting connection with the “parentariat” story, which I hadn’t seen, and which the National Post has already taken off their online pages — I googled it. However, googling the single phrase “the parentariat” brought up a bunch of examples: Irving H. Buchen on a message board [main emphasis: ambitious engaged parents are driving change in schools for their kids]; then there’s Yet another homeschool blog! which cites an entire article by Sarah Schmidt as it appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, and I suspect it’s the same article that you read in the Post (the blog files it under “Dopey article of the day”!); and others, all pointing to or reproducing either Irving Buchen’s article (who appears to be the source of the new word) or the National Post article (which has disappeared from the paper’s site).

Of course parents have to be consumers, and in fact their only “edge” compared to their kids is that they are supposed to have more money and are supposed to be “smarter” in some ways — even though the marketers know for a fact that kids have the biggest influence on spending, and thus the marketers don’t miss a beat in appealing to the kids’s supposed “cool” superiority, their “smarterness.” But parents are nonetheless called upon to use their supposed “edge” (well, it’s just a nice way to put a fancy spin on geezerhood) to enhance their children’s advantages. At the end of the day, parents and children together are supposed to be smart and happy consumers or customers, competitively (and aggressively) ensuring their security and place against other customers, whom they nonetheless increasingly resemble. Everyone starts to look the same (i.e., primarily infantile). What is the difference between a possibly neurotic and certainly obnoxiously ambitious middle-class parent on Boston’s North Shore, who has plotted from pregnancy to get her infant into the “right” Montessori preschool, the “right” private grade school, and the “right” private secondary school (and I knew plenty of these people when I lived in Boston / environs), or the similar parent in Newton or Lexington, Massachusetts who advocates for public school but is willing to buy into the most overpriced neighbourhoods because they supposedly have the better schools (even though they don’t necessarily, since it’s still the same system, albeit a different class of people, ahem), and their counterparts anywhere else on the continent? The primary function of the schools is still the same: custodial, so that the parents are freed up to work and shop, to make the money with which to be consumers.

There’s competition in that. The parentariat phenomenon as described by Buchen expresses this. The parents he’s talking about are breathless with trying to make sure that their kids’s “needs are met” (literally breathless, ’cause they’re running themselves ragged). I find his description troubling because he seems to imply that these customer-parents, with their consumerist competitiveness, are actually making a good difference. I believe they are making everything more the same for everyone (typically as in “more work” — see the reference to the homework project at Johns Hopkins — I personally don’t believe in homework and think it should be outlawed, but then I had a kindergartner who was working at gr.4/5 level and therefore got, because she was capable, an hour of homework every day in addition to a 7-hour school day when she was 5 years old, and people wonder why we left and began homeschooling…).

People talk about having needs met, parents talk about having their kids’s needs met. Now, “need” is an interesting word that has, I think, a deep symbiotic relationship with a certain counterpart known as “freedom.”

When a parent says, “I want my child’s needs to be met,” s/he might claim that s/he’s saying, “I want my child to be able to actualise his/her freedom potential,” which on first blush sounds noble: who doesn’t want to be free? But when you start to dig deeper, you realise that it also means (for the parent) that the child will be set securely on a path that leads away from physical, emotional, and financial exigency [need] in a trajectory that’s fundamentally solitary and possibly adversarial. That is: “meeting the need” already implies a competitive and adversarial relationship toward the others who are in the same need-meeting system. Freedom then becomes a product that a certain amount of engagement and “parentariat involvement” can buy — oftentimes at the expense of the child’s freedom to play, incidentally. Exigency (i.e., “need”) and freedom stand in a sort of deadly yet passionate embrace in consumerist society perhaps because they are no longer seen as antithetical, but have instead become symbiotic: you have to have the one to have the other. You increase your freedom potential if your “need” is greater, because you are “empowered” to compete more assertively if you tell yourself that you have greater needs than the next guy. Freedom’s a good thing, remember? Therefore, if having more needs means you can lay greater claim to clawing your way to freedom, then bring ’em on (the needs, that is). The greater your consumer power, the greater your freedom potential, which is sort of the way things have always been, except that in today’s climate, you can tell yourself that meeting a need isn’t just naked competitiveness, but instead is somehow “noble” or “empowering” because it’s the struggle of the age. (This relates to all the writing on narcissism that’s been done since the 70s, too.) In fact, a kind of competitiveness of need is set up, and the needier you are, the more you win. Which is really really sick, because it loses sight of all the kids who really are needy in a normally understood way (i.e., they’re poor, have neglectful parents, etc.).

Ach, I’m not being very clear. It’s tricky.

I don’t have any prescriptions, no recipes. Except to advocate constant vigilance and criticism. I certainly don’t have any suggestions for alternate systems.

I support free enterprise and capitalism, actually; I think money is a great thing, invented by the powerless and weak to ensure that they, too, could acquire power (I’m thinking back to the feudal ages when birth status determined everything: thank god for merchants and Jews and entrepreneurs and lenders who engendered market economies that liberated us, really and truly thank heavens, otherwise we’d all still be living in the freaking dark ages, because the princes and potentates and ponces and popes of the day had no interest in liberating anyone). But I can’t help criticising the market’s homogenising and ultimately authoritarian aspects. The customer / consume-your-way-to-freedom bullsh*t is turning into a shackle and hasn’t got much oomph left in the liberation department. It really is a bit like the Cold War discourse of the late 40s and especially the 50s wherein “freedom” was hypostasised and everyone used it and said it and bandied it about, even if it meant being as conformist as anything.

maria October 21, 2004 at 3:21 pm

Well, Yule … I think you are on a roll here, digging deeper into the dynamics (for it’s not exactly dialectics any more is it?) of the making of homo economicus as consumer.

I hope you are saving your comments you just wrote …. because there are at least three chapters here for your new book: need, freedom, competition!

I don’t think that you (ha … pun alert!)need to have any particular prescriptions or recpies here. A nudge to us to open our eyes is more potent in this case than yet-another “consumable” discovery on the market of images out there.

My older son is in the middle of the college application process (so foreign from what it was for me!) and I can see the toll it’s beginning to take on him. When he is not dazed, he is grumpy … and little of those mood swings, from where I sit, have anything to do with hormones!

Is it any wonder that the Today show (TV, which I know you don’t watch) has been doing a series, with wide-eyed naivite, about the rising rates of suicides on college campuses? In my mind, which is always in a state of agitation of some sorts, I imagine going through the hell of middle school, high-school, music lessons, sporst competions, a zillion SATs, expert advice on the application process, listening to the members of the parentariat brag about the many “inventive” ways they are packaging their child-product’s resume (with scrapbooks filled with the actual sprots medals!) — and then I imagine arriving to college, away from home, feeling both relieved …. and utterly emptied upon the discovery the college, that elusive realm of freedom is just more of the same….

But I am blathering now.

All in an effort to encourage you to keep writing about this!

Yule Heibel October 21, 2004 at 9:47 pm

I agree with you about the college application madness, Maria, and am reminded of this story: there’s a private high school in Beverly, Mass., whose admissions director likes to tell prospective parents that one of their students, who went on to Brown University, came back during a break to tell the teachers that “After the W**ing School, Brown is easy!” What the admissions person thought would impress parents scared the whats-its out of me. This school is (in)famous for keeping kids till about 5:30pm and then making them do up to 5 hours of homework, nightly. It’s a day school, so some of the kids in addition have a daily commute of up to an hour each way. Furthermore, this school’s ethos was the same as all the other high calibre schools in the area. What the admissions person didn’t tell parents was that they also had a huge drug problem with the students, which wasn’t surprising because who wouldn’t need to dope themselves up to manage? Furthermore, and this relates to your college admissions issue, the only reason parents sent their kids to these schools was because it virtually guaranteed (unless the kid seriously messed up or killed him- herself, which sometimes happened) that son or daughter would get into the college of family choice (and it was invariably an East Coast brand college, nothing public, and nothing further west than Chicago).

I taught at Brown a few years before talking to this admissions officer. I didn’t think there was anything salutary in having a freshman student think of her university experience as “easy” compared to “hard.” Unlike public school, every single student at this school was admitted for being highly capable, yet the approach was to load these kids up with so much more work that they hardly had any free time for random thinking. And the point was simply to get into the right college, because after surviving this process, they could knock out much of the competition with their resumes.

My kids are now an odd “made in Canada” hybrid: we homeschool, but they also take their courses through South Island Distance Education School here in Victoria (so in many ways it’s not “distance” for us: it’s 10 minutes away by car). There are 9 distance ed. schools in BC, but S.I.D.E.S. is fairly unique because we are in the process of building a virtual high school that deviates significantly from the old distance ed. model, and that uses technology in an appropriate manner to deliver content interactively. In addition, we have a program for SWOC kids now (“Students with outstanding capabilities,” i.e., gifted), called “The Renaissance Program.” There’s not much to it yet since it’s just starting out, but the idea is to get some synergy going between these kids; to create mentoring situations with people inside and outside the educational establishment (businesses, eg.); to overhaul existing curricula and make them more challenging and/or enrich them; to provide an advisor who stays with the student during his/ her time at S.I.D.E.S. in the Renaissance Program. We’ll see how it develops. Currently, a couple of the teachers are busily working on overhauling the English and Science curricula; the Social Studies curriculum is still idiotic; the Math is challenging and appropriate; individual niche-history courses show promise (First Nations 12, eg.). The school is now also the Canadian provider of Advanced Placement courses (which are free for my kids, because they are BC public school students enrolled at SIDES, but which will be on fee basis for those who aren’t enrolled, or are over 19).

So, in a sense, getting this SWOC program and AP courses and all those goodies (which have only just rolled in these past few months) means that my activity on the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) and School Planning Council (SPC) has been of a “parentariat” nature, although I’d like to think that we (there are three of us on this PAC-SPC) also advocated for all SIDES students — which include First Nations, adults finishing high school, quite a few low- and high-incidence special needs kids (low incidence means they are really challenged, often in extended care, in hospitals, etc.), and prisoners (2% of SIDES’s student population is in jail).

But some of the pressure is Ministry of Education-driven, in a panic over data and how to interpret them: as in the States, BC has new graduation requirements that include Provincial exams for gr. 10 and 12 (hence the urgency in overhauling the existing Science and English curricula, which currently don’t match up with intended learning outcomes at all). Another Ministry dictate is that every high school student has to develop a “portfolio,” which can include the medals-filled scrapbooks and other resume paraphernalia you describe, and which attests to the “product-isation” of high school education. Your portfolio will be counted toward your graduation credit, it will be judged, and if you don’t manage to package yourself appropriately between its covers, it can hurt you.

Parents all over the province have been demanding change, have asked to “have their child’s needs met,” and these new measures are the result; things have picked up steam here, too. We’re told daily that we all live in a global competitive economy now. A lot of it derives from the Ministry without parent input, of course, although the Ministry is in turn dependent just a bit on parties in power and on voters (many of whom are parents).

I can’t imagine that any individual finds this new world an easy one to navigate, unless he or she leaves personal autonomy at the door and hands over the keys to his or her soul.

Well, I have a 13-year old in gr. 10 and a 10-year old in gr. 9, and we’ll see how this shaping and scraping pans out. Because they’re accelerated (another SIDESeffect), I feel we can also stop the clock at any point. Since it’s not a bricks-and-mortar school, peer pressure isn’t the issue it can be in those places. But the work has to be interesting, not overloading or stupid, and if at any point it is, we can go back to rolling our own (right now, the social studies curricula for gr.9 and 10 is dangerously close to pushing them in that direction — my kids think it’s terrible (and I agree) — but there’s great hope for some of the other courses).

The point for us, at any rate, is literacy, in all (or many) areas. I want my kids to have, as John Taylor Gatto put it, “an exquisitely adversarial turn of mind,” and I want them to be able to articulate it, verbally and in writing. I want them to be able to distinguish between bogus science and genuine research, to recognise crap and hype, to estimate well, to have a constructivist-derived understanding of numeracy, and to be politically astute so they exercise their democratic duties. Among other things. (One of my nephews — a cousin to the kids — is a nuclear physicist: heck, maybe they’ll even discover a genuine science interest at some point!) The “extra stuff” we provide on an extra basis: music, art, voice, sports. It’s true that distance ed can’t provide you with a Theatre Club or even much of a school newspaper (but then, there are blogs, I guess….), and I’m still trying to figure out how to make them start a debate club. Otherwise, it works quite well. When the Ministry is through with them in terms of provincial requirements, they can still take time to explore any area they wish, or take every AP course on offer, or take off for a year of travel or work or write a book or start a business or busk in the metro, patent something, provide a service, or run for public office. They can even go on to university, if they want. What they are learning, I hope, is that there is no prescribed path that results in someone handing you everything on a platter at the end. It’s all process, not product.

That, and knowing where to shop! *wink-wink*

brian moffatt October 23, 2004 at 8:55 pm

As a devoted consumer of the content you provide here at yout blog studio, I have to say that I am completely disatisfied with this particular post. It started off okay, but then it veered somewhere that I didn’t want it to go. I’m not sure where I wanted it to go, but where it went I didn’t like. Please refund me the ten or twelve minutes it took me to read it. If you are not in a position to do this, I will speak to your superior. What is his name? I expect prompt attention on this matter.

And while you are at it, I didn’t much care the way the comments went either. Can you please revise them. And change ‘maria’ to a man, for a little balance.

Yule Heibel October 25, 2004 at 2:19 am

Very witty, Brian. I’ll write another entry on this sometime this week — something about Curtis White, and about The Rebel Sell by those two Canadian guys — which might interest you more, but as for speaking to my superior, forget it. That cookie’s been AWOL for a long time. Re. changing “Maria” to a man, we were just chatting in the next entry about that in comments (well, I was), that it was sad how we don’t have wives to do our typing for us…

Oh, and just the other day, I caught a snippet on CBC radio, interviews with 2 guys, a lawyer in Toronto and a writer in Victoria, about work. The lawyer works 4 days a week, the writer has written about cutting back on work; very apposite to this topic. Maybe I could put you to work, researching this? The writer’s first name was Bruce, didn’t catch his last name. Sheila Rodgers’s show, I think.

And did you see the news report that the USA’s much-vaunted superior productivity is due to working harder, not smarter, with both parents in families working full-time and over-time all-the-time, with way less vacation-time than their European counterparts? Americans now work as much as or more than the Japanese. That’s another reason those schools are needed: keeps the kids off the streets while the parents work like lunatics to make ends meet and buy all that stuff.

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