In the cover story from last month’s Harper’s, Genevieve Smith tries to make sense of the recent American craze for “life coaches” and other personal-brand/-fulfillment/-identity consultants. Like most everything in Harper’s, it is crisply written. It is also fair. Smith acknowledges that it is easy to mock the idea of a Life Coach (hence coaches now tend to omit the “life”), and she is deeply skeptical of the industry’s premise, viewing it as creepy neoliberal monetization of the acts and values that constitute friendship (empathy, trust, candor, patience). She encounters people who rhapsodize about “producing transformation” and are not kidding.
But Smith admits that life-coaching underscores a reality worth remembering: “our problems are mostly the same,” though they materialize in different forms in different lives and communities.
We are unhappy at work, or if we’re happy at work, we’re working too much and missing exercise or our hobbies or time with our kids. Our parents are sick or dying, or not sick but their minds are going, or at least they’re driving us crazy. Or if not our parents, then our spouses, our friends, our children. We feel disconnected from the ones we love. We feel listless and uninspired. We never followed our passions. We know we’d be happier if we ate right, if we meditated, if we called our mothers, but we don’t. We never do.
Of course, anybody who reads literature, watches films, or listens to music could have told you that. And theoretically at least, the world’s major religions are responses to that shared suffering. Leave it to Americans to look for solace in a transaction that is mainly intended to transform a rudderless client into a more efficient, effective free-agent knowledge worker in a market where secure employment is getting scarce.
Coaches are sort of like teachers (experienced teachers could do this motivational shit in their sleep), and their clients are somewhat comparable to students, in the sense that they are studying something, even if the content is usually delivered as cloudy bromides about Improvement, Actualization, and Motivation, and given physical form in corny group exercises where participants act out their hidden powers or whatever. In one scene, actual grown-ups pretend to inhabit roles like Egyptian queens, surfer-dude Rebels, and fireworks (?). An MBA bro even does a cartwheel.
But the coaching-oriented strain of education entails—indeed centers upon—a monetary transaction. I pay you to coach me, and if I dislike how you coach, you are fired. And that’s fine! That is how capitalism works.
Things can quickly get parlous for the coaches. Many of them work for large consulting companies. In one chilling passage, a group becomes disillusioned with their leader’s techniques. This particular self-bolstering activity that I don’t really get—something Moby-Dickish about embracing the Inner Captain—irritates the clients, so they begin “organizing” their complaints against the instructor, first via e-mail, then personal confrontation. The coach fails to placate them by emphasizing that this is how his program works and that they should be patient. Next time the group meets, they have a new instructor. No more stuff about boats and captains. Like the previous coach, the replacement coach works for the Coaches Training Institute, the final word in whose name is presumably intended to make the firm sound like some kind of not-for-profit, quasi-humanitarian venture.
Again, what happened to the first coach is OK as long as we are talking about an enterprise where a good or service is being exchanged for money. If I dislike your restaurant’s burritos, I’m free to never buy them, or to bitch on Yelp about how the guacamole sucks.
Trouble is, the USA has spent the past few decades clumsily applying this consumer model to most of our colleges and universities. Students and their parents are encouraged to see education as a private good purchased to make a person more employable, and once a student stops conceiving of education as an opportunity to work diligently under the challenging guidance of well-trained experts in multiple disciplines and instead treats it like a commodity transaction, the purchase of a credential bearing a school’s name, fundamentally the same as buying a burrito or a Honda, then the entire project collapses. If getting a bachelor’s degree is like ordering at Chipotle, then it is difficult to convince the tuition-payer (or more likely, student-loan debtor) that handing over money is just the first step, that now the buyer gets to write a lot, read widely, study gobs of difficult math and science, and be evaluated according to rigorous standards developed by people with PhDs. That the degree itself is not the point—the liberal education for which it stands is. It may be exasperating for professors, and a misunderstanding of how institutional accounting works, but the “I pay your salary, so hand me that A” narrative is understandable. I need an A on my burrito.
Now that the majority of American professors have scant job security— like that suddenly unpopular life coach, adjuncts can easily be let go by their employers for the feeblest of reasons—it is difficult to contest this narrative. While this is not the case at every school in the country, it is true of the majority, particularly those that rely heavily on part-time labor. Too often, college teachers have little expectation that their bosses will back them during, say, a dispute over an “unfair” grade, so they inflate grades, reduce writing and reading requirements or soften exams, overlook plagiarism, and try to turn instruction into entertainment. This has been a disaster for higher ed. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate at depressing length in their magnificent Academically Adrift (2011), which someone needs to nail to the US Department of Education’s front door, too many schools are graduating too many students with etiolated critical-thinking skills and communication abilities, which, in a terrible irony, leaves those new graduates unprepared for the global economy to which, they were promised, a college diploma is the golden key.
Education is not a burrito and teachers are not hired coaches. But many Americans, most of whom would publicly declare their respect for education and teachers, no longer understand this, or never did. Our market society, to which universities were once a partial exception, is happy to oblige them. It will not be surprising when the University of Phoenix starts allowing students to collectively fire their teachers or at least purchase alternative ones. I can see this policy catching on elsewhere, too.