Tuition vs. Information

The word tuition always seems to signify a fee rather than the act of instruction. For the latter, we tend to use the word teaching. But I think that tuition is a very useful word, especially as the neoliberal digitization of teaching (especially teaching in the humanities) suggests that what professors primarily offer to students is information.

Tuition comes from the Latin tueri, which means to watch, to guardian, to preserve. It refers to the action of a guardian—someone who’s looking out for the best interests of students. An emphasis on such tuition can of course detrimentally suggest a parental role for professors that might infantilize students. But a greater focus on observation and preservation seems to me necessary for upholding the value of a liberal arts education. The responsibility and the vocation of teaching are threatened by the Silicon Valley discourse of “content delivery”—the suggestion that a good teacher is someone who transfers packets of information to students efficiently and satisfyingly.

A good teacher is a tutor, not a lecturer or an informer. To reduce teaching to content delivery is to take the human element out of the humanities—to suggest, in other words, that students need data rather than guidance. The very performance of interpersonal conduct—especially in the acts of listening and responding to questions—seems, to me, essential to my job as a college professor.

Tuition requires sympathy. The best chapter of James Banner and Harold Cannon’s book The Elements of Teaching is titled “Compassion.” “Anyone contemplating teaching as a profession should consider compassion as a measure of suitability,” argue Banner and Cannon. To fail to bear the ethical obligations of the profession “means in effect to be not a teacher but someone who merely offers information.”

I often spend too much time preparing lecture notes, placing too much faith in value of facts uttered into the atmosphere. The most valuable education is not one that bestows knowledge upon a student but rather one that leads a student forth into knowledge. (“Give a man a fish….”)

Information is cheap, and students living in an Information Age would do well to keep this in mind. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars on tuition, don’t accept content delivery in return.

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