The “Freshers Fair” — a core experience for university students all across the United Kingdom. For anyone who has not heard this term before or witnessed this event, it is most accurately depicted by the image of a Mexican street market in which thousands of new university students cram through a narrow lane of booths in a hot sweaty hall with various businesses shouting at them, attempting to lure them into trying their products or services. Many of these companies and services offer something for free in hopes of getting students through the doors of their business so as to milk them for their student loan money.
What is almost painful to watch is the nightclubs offering false hospitality to students. “Are you new to the city? Looking to meet some people? Want to have a good time?” They prey on the student’s deep desire for community (in a new city and away from home) to line their pockets with cash. They are offering something that looks like genuine hospitality but with ulterior motives lurking below the surface. Their end is their own belly.
But its not just the nightclubs that are like this — they are a straw man, easy to pick on — it is also, although more subtly, the universities. If you have ever been involved in higher eduction, you have probably been privy to boardroom conversations about the need for students to be satisfied with their educational experience. Why is this important? Because students are consumers, they buy the university’s product. No students, no money. Its a market.
Universities have whole departments that exist to provide ‘care’ for students. These departments offer a sort of pseudo hospitality; a transactional hospitality that is based on consumer demand. While I have met some fantastic people in these departments — genuine people who legitimately care for students — the bottom line in justifying a department like this is student retention and money in the bank. Happy students mean better bank balances.
This pseudo hospitality offered by the university is a simile for the general understanding of hospitality in our culture at large. We live in a society where businesses and institutions attempt offer something called ‘hospitality’. This hospitality is not rooted in love or genuine care for the other (although there, no doubt, exists a degree of this) but is a means of lining the pockets of providers. The end of these transactions is often not the joy, comfort and care of the one being offered hospitality for the sake of him or herself. This kind of hospitality is a perverted, mutant form of its ideal and has proclivity towards self service. In the hospitality industry, people need not genuinely care for one another, because this is an economic exchange: I use you, you use me, call it something nice like hospitality. This way of being defines the human person in market terms.
But let us make no mistake, it is not just the institutions who superimpose the narrative of the market on to students, students routinely dehumanize their professors by defining and relating to them in market terms. The words students use to describe their experience of their teachers often betray their attitude that faculty are products to be consumed. The number of times I have heard faculty spoken of in derogatory terms because they failed to meet the students expectations, is disconcerting. There seems to be some sort of unspoken right to speak of a professor as ‘horrible’ or an ‘idiot’, or other less than human terms if he or she does not measure up. Essentially, they are treated as ‘things’ to be used in the economy of education.
Maybe its the sheer size of classes in some major universities that leads to a dehumanizing of the professor? Students have very little face to face time with the academic that is leading their module. It’s always easier to objectify a person and treat them badly when you don’t know them personally. Face to face encounter has a way of relativising grievances and cultivating compassion. There is something about flesh and blood, hearing a voice, shaking a hand, watching someone care for their children, that serves to resist objectification. You know that moment when you realize that your perceived arch nemesis is just as human as you and has pains, fears and hopes too? If students are to act more christianly in their institutions it will require them to see their professors not just a disseminators of an intellectual product but rather human beings who deserve a certain dignity — a dignity and respect which should be realized in our speech and actions.
The Christian understanding of the human person is that he or she is made in the image of God, and therefore mysterious and sacred. Human beings are to be loved and treated well because of the one in whose image they are made not because of their function or use to us. People are not cogs in the consumerist engine, they are mysteries to be encountered. C.S. Lewis, pushing the boundaries of language, said:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship … It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another… all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” (Weight of Glory)
Lewis’ understanding of the human person forces us to more deeply think about the way we engage each other in the world in which we live. He forces us to think beyond the boundaries of a consumer experience. While modern society is directed by forces of the free market — everyone is peddling a product, and in this fray we are either consumers or providers – Lewis resists this reduction. He forces us to think about how we use each other, about how treat people as means to our own ends. This is so enmeshed in our DNA as westerners that most of us do it everyday without thinking, its as natural as breathing. But the language of immortality in Lewis suggests that people are not things to be controlled, but mysteries to be encountered.
Eugene peterson, leaning into a similar idea says:
“We live in a culture that has replaced the soul with self. This reduction turns people into either problems or consumers. In so far as we acquiesce in that replacement we gradually but surely regress in our identity, for we end up thinking of ourselves and dealing with others in marketplace terms: everyone we meet is either a potential recruit to join our enterprise or potential consumer for what we are selling; or we ourselves are the potential recruits and consumers. Neither we nor our friends have any dignity just as we are, only in terms of how we or they can be used.” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 38)
In the university experience, there is great need for us to look beyond seeing each other in market terms. This does not mean that we do not have something to offer each other, it simply means we must push ourselves to act for the good of the other rather than our own good. If universities are going to offer true hospitality, this requires freedom; freedom for students to just ‘be’ without having to defend ones self against market forces. Christian hospitality is not offered as a tactic of market manipulation — to sign you up for something or to get you to attend an event – but is rooted in a conviction that regardless of whether someone buys the ‘product’ or not, they are made in God’s image: an image that deserves dignity and respect.
And if students are going to treat their professors Christianly, this may require a hesitancy to use particular kinds of language to describe performance. Yes, your professors need to grow in their skill too, but the way we talk about them can be done well or poorly. Professors are not simply products to be consumed but, to pick up on Lewis, mysteries to be encountered.
Photo by (flickr CC) SUARTS