Let's make it magical

July 6, 2001

'Disenchanted' universities could find inspiration on the Las Vegas strip, suggests George Ritzer.

In McDonaldising its operations, the university has become increasingly "disenchanted". Anything that cannot be legitimated on a rational market basis - anything that seems the least bit enchanted - is likely to be cut.

Much of the magic of the university involves - perhaps a bit romantically - intimate contact between learned faculty and eager students. Such contact is now deemed irrational. Gone are tutorials, and even the small seminar is hard to legitimate. Large lectures are far more rational despite the likelihood that students learn less than they would in a seminar. But even the large lecture now seems irrational in comparison with various forms of "distance learning".

There are some positive aspects of disenchantment such as efficiency, but given the negative consequences of the process, what can the university do to re-enchant itself? The first step is to recognise that the university is now almost universally seen by students and faculty as a means of consuming education. Students and parents are the customers and they are offered an array of services. Increasingly, they are looking for the same factors from the university that they seek in other means of consumption: a good deal, a low price, efficient services, cutting-edge technology.

But a bare-bones, highly rationalised university is more likely to put off than attract customers. The university's customers, like those of many means of consumption, demand some enchantment for their money. The problem is that compared with the most successful means of consumption, the university looks quite shabby. It is time the university took a cue from some of the leaders in the field.

The most successful enchanters have transformed themselves into cathedrals of consumption through "spectacles" created by simulations (Las Vegas casino-hotels such as the Mandalay Bay); implosions, such as the US mega-mall, which encompasses shopping centre and amusement park; space (enormous cruise ships); and time (casinos from different epochs: again, see Las Vegas).

These spectacles have served to re-enchant otherwise McDonaldised means of consumption, and they attract droves of customers willing to spend large sums of money. What lessons could the university learn from settings that seem so antithetical to it? Possibilities include:

  • Rebuild old universities, or create new "themed" ones, to simulate Harvard or Oxford
  • Extend the process whereby other means of consumption (food courts, shopping malls) implode into the university
  • Extend the process of having the modern university encompass enormous physical spaces and be defined by huge buildings.
  • Reconstruct the university so that it combines a mix of facilities that are contemporary, futuristic and that harken back to the past. For example, faculty might don traditional caps and gowns when they lecture to their large classes, even when using recent technologies such as PowerPoint.

Needless to say, it would undermine the university's credibility to become too much like the major cathedrals of consumption. Furthermore, the latter's methods of re-enchantment rely on huge, superficial spectacles that are manufactured, mass-produced and inauthentic. They might create a sense of magic for students, but the effects would be neither genuine nor long-lasting.

The real challenge for the university is to create distinctive, more genuine forms of spectacle and enchantment. One possibility is the creation of "quotidian spectacles" - that is, making the most fundamental educational activities such as teaching, spectacular. Such spectacles would involve the deMcDonaldisation of the everyday, so that the basic activities of the university are inefficient, unpredictable, incalculable and rely on human technology.

By restructuring its most fundamental activities so that they are "spectacularly irrational", the university would not only attract hordes of high-quality students, but also dramatically improve the quality of education.

George Ritzer is professor of sociology, University of Maryland, United States. He is giving a paper at the McDonaldisation of Higher Education conference. A book on the conference, edited by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynward, will be published later this year.

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