The answers to questions about the relationship between faculty and students - including medical students - depend on an understanding of the nature of teaching and the underlying ethical principles of our society. The authors maintain that teaching is purposive, rational, communal, and moral. They assert that Western society is based on the values of liberal democracy and that the key ethical principles for the professions that are derived from those values are autonomy, standard of care, and respect for democratic institutions. There are three candidates for ethical models on which to base the relationship between students and faculty. Two of them (clientism and paternalism) the authors reject. The one that they favor (the fiduciary model) is based on mutual trust and respect, which both students and faculty have responsibilities to maintain. Using that model, the authors conclude that students are, in some aspects, customers of faculty. This student-centered approach is balanced by treating society and other faculty as customers as well. Pathologies in medical education attributed to clientism (such as an obsession with marks and overemphasis on memorization) existed well before medical students were purportedly being treated as customers; perhaps it is not the student who is "broken" but the system in which the student is made to function. Whether students are called customers, clients, knowledge workers, or simply students, faculty must involve them more in shaping their education and in dealing with enduring problems that profoundly affect their learning.
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