Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.
The assumption that education itself can be sold seems in part like a conflation of “education” and “credential”, and also an assumption that education never required anything from the student in order to be education. The idea that in the past students were not “engaged” with material is closely related to this. Of course students in the past were engaged to learn–they had to be. Otherwise they couldn’t have learned anything, because that’s how learning works. This is why “education” cannot be “delivered” like the daily paper.
The concept of education as an object is also present in debates about online learning, particularly in the recent massively hyped corporate and Ivy League versions of MOOCs. Driven as they are by the non-pedagogical need to find economies of scale, these projects envision students quantitatively, from the calculation of enrollment to the use of “learning analytics” to track behaviour (and the monetization of data). This fragmentation turns education into a series of discrete services, interactions, and measured outcomes.
Such a view of education–as something that can be delivered, sold, packaged–is part of a schema that includes the overly-simplistic “sender-receiver” model of communication, and the objectification of knowledge. These ideas are present in much of the criticism of, and commentary about, higher education; and they are pervasive in the rhetoric of education marketing and policy. The marketization of education, its presentation as simultaneously a product and a service, its increasing necessity in a difficult economy, and the financial burden placed on students through increasing tuition and fees, have all contributed to our understanding of what education is. Objectification and commodification go hand in hand; treating students as consumers means encouraging them to see education as something to be consumed–not created. Of course this is much easier than saying, “you’ve paid $6,000–now you have to do the work”, because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic.