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Education is golf, and Juan Pablo was a golfer.

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Education is not business.  Education is golf.

Yes, as in business, you have to pay to go golfing, but you don’t buy your score, you buy “a round of golf.”  If you go out golfing and you really stink up the place, you don’t get your money back.  When you pay your greens fees, you aren’t paying for golfing well, you are paying for golfing.  You are paying for an opportunity.  How you golf is up to you.  Education works exactly the same way.  Well, not exactly the same way — this is, after all, just a metaphor, but golf is a way better metaphor than business. 

Too many people are saying that education is a business, and that students are customers, and if you don’t give them what they want, they won’t shop at your school, and your school will go belly-up.  It is true that education is expensive and if students don’t come, you probably will go belly-up, but it’s still stupid to think of education as a business.  If education is a business because people pay money, then the army is a business because it has expenses, and the church is a business because it has organizational structure, and a pack of wolves is a business because it has a leader.  You can call a pack of wolves a business, but that doesn’t really help us understand the social structure of wolves.  (Call a business a pack of wolves, on the other hand, and you may be on to something!)  If you need to invade, say, Canada, you don’t need a good marketing/business strategy, you need a good army.  (Actually, if you’re just invading Canada, a decent army will probably suffice, but you get my point).  It may be possible to turn a school into a  business — but it won’t be a school anymore.  

One of the core principles of business these days claims, “the customer is always right.”  You must have happy customers, and in order to do that you give them what they want.  But just the opposite is true in education.  In education, the “customer” is always wrong. That’s why students go to school — they are sick of being wrong.  A golfer says, “I’m tired of bogey golf — I need to go to the course so I can get better.”  A student says, “I’m tired of being ignorant — I need to go to school so I can become wise.”  If we treated students like customers, school would be easier but students would learn less.  No tests, no long papers, no intellectual growth.

Another way that business is a bad metaphor is rooted in the assumption that education can turn out students like products — merchandise both uniform and unchanging.  Products without an expiration date, like Twinkies.   Just flip a switch and watch the machine excrete miles of  tasty cream filled cakes.  Around here they call it, “outcome based education.”  Education, it is argued, should produce specific, measurable, and predictable results.  The fact is, students are all different and they all learn differently, but outcome based education insists that, “all of our graduates are able to do X.” Schools, therefore, are forced to shoot for an X that is a lowest common denominator kind of X so that everyone can do it.  “All of our golfers will make some kind of contact with the ball 42% of the time!”  It’s a middling kind of education that discourages people from excelling.

Education as golf, on the other hand, places a significant burden for student success on students. Students are not objects acted upon by education, but agents taking action.

Certainly this doesn’t mean the entire burden of learning falls on the student.  A significant responsibility falls on the keepers of the course.

To that end, we do our best to make the golf course challenging, beautiful, and enjoyable. We try to keep it well-manicured.  We hire golf pros to instruct, correct, and guide.  We evaluate your game and we try to be honest — we won’t tell you that you’re Tiger Woods when you’re really Maurice Flitcroft (the worst golfer of all time).  We hold clinics and classes and seminars and you can practice on the driving range or the putting green.  We do everything we can think of to help you get better.  We keep working on our own game, too.  You may be able to become a spectacular golfer on your own (Bubba Watson was self-taught) but our goal is to create a rich environment that maximizes your abilities.   

Still, there is only so much we can do.  Ultimately, how you golf is up to you.  If you don’t practice, you won’t golf well.  If you ignore our advice about keeping your eye on the ball, you won’t golf well.  If you come to the course and you bring those puffy “Jr. Pro Plastic Golf Clubs,” you won’t golf well.  If your primary strategy involves watching allotta golf on TV, you won’t golf well.  

If, on the other hand… you golf a  lot, and you take lessons from the pro, and you practice 10  hours  a day, and you don’t spend too much time drinking in the clubhouse, and you enter as many tournaments as you can, playing against the best of the best, and you have really good genes, and your psyche is such that you can handle pressure well, you may go pro, and someday win the Masters and make a bazillion dollars in underwear endorsements.  

But you might not. We, the keepers of the golf course, can’t guarantee you’ll become Arnold Palmer, even if you work really hard.   When you finish your round we will award you a diploma that says, in very elegant calligraphy, “Fred Schnieber Golfed Here.” If you want to know how well Fred (a real person I knew a long time ago) golfed, you can look at his report card.

But we aren’t producing widgets with a money back guarantee.  While we would like to think that Fred left here and kept after his game and matured and remembered everything we taught him, we just can’t be sure.   Some people even regress.  People forget things, or they get lazy, or they learn bad habits, or they decide everything we taught was all wrong and they just go their own way. We would like to think our program leaves a lasting impression, and on the whole, we think it does, but you never know.  Education is like golf.

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Juan Pablo (the Juan Pablo) “golfed” at Roberts Wesleyan College.  Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of talk around campus about our most infamous graduate: “The Bachelor.”   He didn’t take any of my classes, but he played soccer and graduated with a degree (in business, I think). From what I’ve heard, he really enjoyed his time here.  People who meet him in person  (except for 24 of the bachelorettes, I guess) say he’s really nice. While the college is certainly not promoting Juan Pablo or the show, he has been around campus visiting friends.    But it’s not like he cured cancer — he just was on a TV show. And while most people in our community just seem to roll their eyes at the whole thing (the premise, his antics, the controversies, etc.), it is surprising to me how much ownership people take. Some seem genuinely excited that we can now count a reality TV star among our graduates.  Many, however, are indignant — upset that somehow Juan Pablo’s infamy reflects badly on them or their alma mater.  “Boy — he’s sure representing Roberts well,” or “‘Education for Character,’ huh?” or  “I can’t believe this is what Roberts produces.”  I’ve heard people say those things.

Part of me wishes that Juan Pablo’s RWC degree would have forever inoculated him against being on a television show like “The Bachelor.”  Part of me wishes all of our graduates would understand that the task of finding a spouse is way too important a task to be left to Hollywood — that dating 25 women simultaneously and that having a make-out session with contestant #22, right after having a make-out session with contestant #21, is probably a bad idea.  I can tell you that no professor ever told him, “Juan Pablo, despite the fact that you are right now surrounded by 1200 of the best women in the world, you shouldn’t marry a girl from Roberts — you should see if you can get on a lame TV show and date a bunch of strangers.”  Nobody told him that.   Part of me wishes that a diploma from RWC would forever inoculate all students against even watching “The Bachelor,” but then, not everything we do here takes.  Because education is like golf.

It’s not fair to single out Juan Pablo just because he’s been on TV.   He never volunteered to be “Mr. Roberts Wesleyan” and I don’t mean to pick on him.  How would you measure up if B.T. (our founder) was doing the evaluating?  How would I measure up?  My point is simply that education does not turn raw materials into finished goods. Students are not merchandise.  Our students come to us with rich and varied backgrounds and they leave and pursue rich and varied lives.  And as much as we would love to see all of our graduates excelling at noble and righteous pursuits, well, it just doesn’t work that way.  I’m not sure why so many of us are surprised by that.

The best I ever golfed was even par — a 36 on the 9 hole course in Zion, Illinois.  I was in high school.  If I golfed there today, I’m sure I would do much worse.  But it certainly wouldn’t be the course’s fault — it’s the same course.  A better coach might have coaxed a little more out of me than Mr. Portman did back in the day, but ultimately, my golf game is a reflection of my efforts. These days I don’t golf much, so my golf game is pretty weak.  I think there are more important things than golf.

One of those is education.  It’s way more important than golf.  Probably in the top 3.  So like all metaphors, the golf metaphor breaks down.  But it’s better than some others.  Way better.

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