Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Human Hole in Our Economy

Back in my teaching days, I made one-on-one meetings with my students mandatory. I had as many as six such sessions per semester, a very time-consuming process, especially for an adjunct, nominally a part-time worker. However, I believe they helped both me and my students. The one semester where I focused exclusively on lecturing, I didn’t enjoy the process, and my students’ writing suggests they didn’t learn much either. We both benefitted from just talking.

I remembered this experience when two essays crossed my desk almost simultaneously this week. The first, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, exhorts American universities (and, implicitly, elementary and high schools) to reduce hiring of educational consultants, lay off non-classroom administrators, and use the savings to hire new classroom teachers. The demand has grown familiar recently. University tuition has ballooned while teacher pay has declined, mainly behind paying expensive administrators to criticize from on high.

The second essay, from Salon, discussed the author’s experience clerking a bookstore counter during the Christmas rush. The author describes customers thanking her profusely for her nearly instantaneous ability to find books on flimsy descriptions. She also describes customers turning abusive when made to stand in line, threatening to take their business to Amazon. Essentially these customers attempt to hold the author’s job hostage unless clerks behave as compliantly as one of Earth’s biggest websites.

These two essays, considered independently, simply rehash complaints we’ve heard endlessly. Teachers want to teach, and resent non-classroom pundits prescribing their curricular methods. Physical bookstores have that human touch, but customers have lost their appreciation. Ho hum. But together, a theme develops: whether in humane endeavors like education, or for-profit commerce, the best results are outgrowths of human relationships. And relationships are something we, abetted by new technology, are writing out of our daily lives.

My belief that bookstores and paper books still matter is already well documented. My unscientific opinions have been validated recently by declines in ebook sales relative to print volumes. But we’re seeing forces beyond one commodity being pushed into new territory. We have more stuff available, but opportunities for discovery are significantly narrowed, with costs we’re only beginning to recognize. The consequences of moving American commerce online have been severely misstated, to put it mildly.

Just one example: as more people book airline flights and hotel rooms directly, America’s travel agencies flake off our economy like dandruff. But the supposed savings from “cutting the middleman” scarcely exist. UCLA tech guru Shlomo Benartzi writes that any savings gets more than absorbed by the increased costs vendors pay for simple visibility on aggregators like Kayak and Expedia. More than half your hotel bill today goes into advertizing, triple about fifteen years ago.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’d never encourage readers to abandon ecommerce altogether. Where I live, savvy book shopping requires Amazon and other retailers. My town has two mall bookstores; visiting quirky indie bookshops and record stores would require hours-long drives to Lincoln, Denver, or Kansas City, at great economic and environmental costs. Online retailers (and the much-maligned mall bookstores) make books, and other specialty commodities, available to residents in outlying areas underserved by big-city capitalism.

However, this doesn’t change the greatest drawback to Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, and other online retailers, that they’re ultimately passive. Though one could make proactive choices to seek boundary-busting content from these providers, most people don’t. We (including me) drift along the current of what’s available, selecting what we know we already like. Having done this to media consumption, some would do the same to education. Passivity isn’t a virus; it’s being propagated like a seed.

The irony that the two essays which inspired this response reached me through the Internet, possibly the most passive mass medium currently available, isn’t lost on me. But in receiving these sources, I chose to absorb their message. I chose to have a relationship with them, and by extension with their authors, a choice available with all media, however passive. That choice exists for everyone. We need only to consciously make that choice, every day.

We don’t send youth into school to convey information into their heads; we send youth into schools to be changed. We also read books for similar reasons. We can, if we choose, be changed by movies, music, and arguably by television. But we do that only by having a relationship with others. Maybe it’s face-to-face in teacher conferences. Maybe it’s vicariously, through media others create. But relationships matter. We mustn’t let electronics replace these relationships.

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