The McDonalds-ification of Education

29 March 2015

There is an approach to learning that is corroding education, especially higher education, in the US: the "McDonalds-ification of Education."

"Fast food" has been around for a long time. The ancient Romans had it. But McDonald's raised it to a high art. You come in, you look at the menu up on the wall while you are in line, you order, and you immediately get your food. In many ways, McDonald's has become a paradigm for how our consumer society works. The internet is basically McDonald's for information and entertainment. Pick what you want, get it immediately, move on to the next thing. There is nothing wrong with any of this in principle. I love the internet. And I love an occasional Big Mac. But as the Greek said, "μηδὲν ἄγαν" -- do nothing in excess! The documentary Super Size Me (2004) demonstrated that a consistent diet of McDonald's has the potential to kill you. And if you treat surfing the web as the paradigm for all information gathering, it can kill your mind.

What concerns me is that we increasingly find a tendency among students to think that education is about being given a menu of easily digestible ideas, picking out one that you like, and swallowing it in one gulp. But education is not about just picking out an opinion or theory that you find appealing at first glance. Deep ideas sometimes seem implausible at first, and shallow ones can have the specious appearance of being incisive. (I like to remind my students that it was not just dogmatism that led people to oppose the Copernican theory that the Earth goes around the Sun. After all, it doesn't feel like the Earth is spinning like a top while wheeling around the Sun, does it?)

I teach philosophy, and students often walk into class with the assumption that philosophy is all about hyperbolic doubt. How do you know that the world is not an illusion? How do you know that 2+2=4? How do you know that pain is bad? Doubt can be useful if used, like Descartes did, as a therapeutic tool. "Let's doubt such-and-such, and see if we can discover what grounds for belief there are." But doubting everything is a dead end. The most productive technique of philosophy is dialogue. Begin with some issue on which another person disagrees with you. Ask your interlocutor (or read up on) why she holds that position. If she gives a good reason, agree with her! If not, try to come up with a response that should convince her that she is mistaken. Find out what she says (or would say) in response, and.... This process seldom comes to an end quickly or decisively, and it is hard to do well. But it promotes a deeper understanding of others, and a skill for careful thinking that no other kind of education can produce. (And what if we lived in a world of people who tried hard to understand and convince, rather than kill, one another?)

Too often, though, students who have been raised in our McDonalds-ified civilization find this intellectual discipline alien or even offensive. They hear an idea they like -- the more glib the idea the more appeal it is likely to have to the unreflective -- and counterarguments bounce off them like pebbles hitting titanium. A society of instant gratification is not a society of deep thought. In fact, the dogmatic skepticism or casual relativism that passes as "philosophy" in some intellectual circles is attractive precisely because it insulates people from thinking. I can't count how many times a student has tried to shut down a philosophical discussion at precisely the point at which it was becoming difficult and personally challenging by saying, "Who's to say what the truth is?"

The spirit of Pontius Pilate is alive and well, and he is enjoying his intellectual chicken McNuggets!

Comments (8)

Guest's picture


Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I worked for McDonald's for

I worked for McDonald's for more than 2 yrs and I educated a lot of things when I was there. One thing is, if you are leaving to work there, treat it as any additional job...meaning, be on time, work hard, and be well-organized.

Stephen's picture


Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with you Brian. I

I agree with you Brian. I taught critical theory for over 20 years and I found the expectations of many of my students was to want to know only what is going to be tested. This era of ever- increasing specialization enables a loss of the curiosity to learn more, to ask questions. The tendency toward teaching from a "menu" has increased, catalyzed by the flare from the 1990s.
And yes, teachers and bureaucrats (no negative spin intended) who schedule, plan and compose curricula are prey to the same urge for immediate-gratification that we all are, increasingly blinded by the blaze of capital in all its forms. Things rather than thoughts; It's easier that way, though many of us feel the pull in a single direction downward toward the fall of, at least, this Western civilization of ours.

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Saif Ammar's picture

Saif Ammar

Friday, May 27, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I was really excited when I

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Friday, July 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

You have an in-depth

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Benny88's picture


Thursday, August 11, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Basically people are afraid

Basically people are afraid to say what they really think. They tend to adapt most popular opinion without actually thinking about it, checking if it reflects their feelings and emotions. Being mainstream is very convenient but also destructive. We are all different and we should be able to and should look for opportunities to express ourselves and learn about each other with respect and open mind.

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