Saturday, May 24, 2008

U.S. Education: Consumption Be Done?

"We have become a nation that places a lower priority on teaching its children how to thrive socially, intellectually, even spiritually, than it does on training them to consume."

-----Juliet Schor, Born To Buy

In a recent New York Times op-ed ("Hard Roads Ahead," May 17, 2008), Bob Herbert sounds the familiar liberal alarm that "more is not being done about the poor performance of so many American high schools." He laments that a third of U.S. students drop out without having earned a high school diploma, while half of the students who stay in school graduate without the skills for college or a decent job. The U.S., he complains, ranks 15th in the world in high school reading assessments, and 25th in high school math.

Such observations are by now so redundant a reader could be forgiven for slipping into a coma at their umpteenth reiteration. According to liberals, all a young person need do to ensure a glorious future is stay in school and get a high school diploma. Apparently, we needn't worry about whether the diploma correlates with any wisdom, nor should we consider that the college educated have had declining real wages for some time, which hardly encourages the life of study that everyone praises and virtually no one takes up. Neglecting to note that large numbers of college students graduate to "careers" as bartenders and waitresses, Herbert mindlessly intones the liberal mantra that "four years of college is becoming a prerequisite for a middle-class quality of life."

Liberal hand-wringing notwithstanding, there is nothing particularly difficult to understand in the high U.S. drop-out rate. Judging from the dismal state of so many public schools, the decision of millions of our young people to stop attending them is hardly irrational. If you are continually herded from one classroom to another to the sound of jarring bells, there to find not the proverbial stimulating learning environment, but rather, an overworked, frustrated, and often poorly-educated teacher overwhelmed with the demands of educating 150 or more teenagers on a daily basis, you might very well decide that school is not for you. Others certainly have, and not just teenagers. Appalled by the damage inflicted by racist schooling in the U.S., James Baldwin told black people over thirty years ago that they ought to pull their kids out of schools that had proven themselves unable to educate their children but well able to scar them emotionally and psychologically. If today millions of kids do for themselves what Baldwin advised that parents do on their behalf, who can really blame them?

The talking heads can pontificate all they like about the importance of study and education, but U.S. popular culture, i.e., corporate culture, proves we are not a society that values education. In movies, teachers are almost always buffoons or jerks, and study is depicted as laughable interference with self-gratification. In fact, as media critic Mark Crispin Miller points out, not just teachers, but adults in general are subjected to relentless media ridicule: "It's part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor."

On the rare occasions when teachers are depicted positively, they are saintly figures that no flesh-and-blood educator could possibly hope to emulate. Remember Stand and Deliver, the story of L.A. superteacher Jaime Escalante? In an early scene he offers to take on more than full-time teaching duties while his less-committed colleagues look on mutely in a staff meeting. Shortly thereafter Escalante suffers a heart attack. The message? Teachers should have a nun-like devotion to teaching and work themselves to death if necessary. Obviously, this is an ethic that will not be taken to heart by millions of teachers, nor should it be.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that the values of a consumer culture and those of a (hypothetical) culture of education are mutually exclusive. In the U.S. anyone who bucks the tide by developing a passion for reading will quickly discover that American society considers such behavior peculiar, even as it praises the piling up of academic credentials. Carrying a book under one's arm is suspicious and irrational, and provokes puzzled inquiries as to what class is requiring that the book be read. In other words, the idea that reading is a pleasure is way beyond the capacity of tens of millions of our fellow citizens to understand. Unfortunately, it is the school system itself that breeds this attitude, in spite of all the official praise promoting a culture of reading. We are not encouraged to read in order to enjoy and understand the world, but in order to do book reports, accumulate credits, earn praise and good grades, graduate to the "right" college, then land a lucrative position with the "right" company, after which work demands generally make it impossible to read anything.

In short, we value the marketplace, not education. The accumulation of grades, credits, and degrees is, in fact, a miniature market, and constitutes a rehearsal for the accumulation of financial assets that is to come later. The pundits who naively describe this process as synonymous with education are themselves largely illiterate, though they can decipher the printed word well enough. But listen to them talk and you readily see how pathetic is their understanding of the world.

Rarely do Herbert or other corporate scribes direct attention to the increasingly aggressive consumer culture in which our school system is enmeshed. In the past, getting and spending was modest in comparison to the energy expended in work, play, school, and religious involvement. But today, marketed leisure has largely displaced unstructured socializing, and most of what children do revolves around watching television and acquiring the commodities it depicts. Mastering school curriculum may register dimly in the recesses of young minds, but it is at best a secondary concern.

In fact, much of the school curriculum itself, allegedly an oasis from consumerism, is by now little more than McKnowledge. Making up for budget shortfalls brought about by its own unwillingness to pay taxes, corporate America has for some time now been providing oddly inappropriate curricular aids for the underfunded public schools. Campbell Soup Company has distributed a free demonstration kit inviting students to determine by scientific experiment whether Prego spaghetti sauce is thicker than Ragu. Hunt-Wesson has provided a "Kernels of Knowledge" history package listing famous scientists who "made a difference," including Louis Pasteur, George Washington Carver, and Orville Redenbacher, maker of Orville's popcorn. Exxon has distributed a video to high schools, teaching that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not really harmful. Candy companies have provided a board game to elementary school students, which instructs that Thomas Jefferson defended "the superiority of chocolate for both health and nourishment." Revlon has sponsored lessons in self-esteem, asking students to reflect on "good hair days" and "bad hair days." Clearasil has delivered skin education and Domino's Pizza has taught students how to count by using pepperoni slices (math texts regularly insert brand names into word problems to help kids "relate" to the material more). Software companies get into the act by supplying "educational software" that teaches reading by getting students to recognize the logos of Kmart, McDonald's, Hi-C, and Cap'n Crunch.

In 2001, school-business partnerships outdid themselves in efforts to commercialize education: Omaha Nebraska came up with a district plan to tear up the floor of a school gym and replace it with segments painted with corporate logos, each one costing $10,000; a Pennsylvania school board revealed plans to sell advertising time over the PA system; the Oscar Mayer corporation sponsored an annual elementary school contest for the best imitation of its company song, with the winning school getting $10,000. The same year NetworkNext announced 500 contracts with schools to show ads in exchange for a mobile computer unit that could give Power Point presentations. (Teachers show slides and ads for Rock Star video games, Wal-Mart, Visa Buxx cards, and Coty products appear on the screen).

American teenagers may not be able to read, but American babies can recognize corporate logos by the time they are 18 months old. Before their second birthday they are requesting products by name. By three-and-a-half they "understand" that brands communicate personal qualities, that one is cool, strong, or smart according to one's pattern of consumption. Before they even go to school they are watching an average of over two hours of TV a day, and by the time they set foot in their first classroom they can evoke 200 brands, not a surprising development given that typical American children accumulate dozens of new toys a year.

The language of advertisers shows no concern for educational achievement. The children they want to influence are called "targets." The money they commit to ad campaigns is described as "going against the target." Printed ad materials are "collateral." Impromptu interviews with consumers designed to get more information with which to guide them to higher levels of consumption are "intercepts." Resort to metaphors of biological warfare are constant, with disturbing references to "viral marketing," and "sending out a virus." There is also at least one phrase taken from drug dealers, i.e., "converting [a child] into a user." Other contempt-ridden catchphrases include delivering the "eyeballs" and becoming "top of mind." Nickelodeon has boasted to advertisers that it "owns kids aged 2-12."

In short, marketers permeate American culture, and they are hardly sleeper cells. They videotape children in their private spaces, analyzing and shaping the rituals of daily life. They observe and record what children do in stores, in the streets, even in school. Market researchers pay adults that kids trust, like coaches, ministers, and youth workers, to get information about their consumption habits. Online, they offer money, products, and prizes to children who produce valuable consumer information.

Such information is then crafted into a message and relentlessly programmed into young minds. Companies get children to market to each other in chat rooms, on playgrounds, even in private homes. Child marketing is ongoing at market festivals, concerts, and public schools. Trusted institutions like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have teamed up with marketers in their quest to create "infinite consumer touchpoint possibilities." Every avenue of publicity is exploited: TV, radio, direct marketing, events and sponsorships, Web ads, product placement, editorials in the press, billboards, posters, graffiti, ads on buildings, point-of-purchase displays, and packaging. Industry claims the commercial blitzkrieg is all just an attempt to "empower" children and promote "self-esteem." No doubt that's why there are now stress management workshops for kindergartners, with marketing studies indicating that children want less pressure, overload, and more time to relax. Too bad for them that the high consumption lifestyle they are being pushed to embrace correlates with depression, stress, and burnout.

There isn't much doubt that the commercial curriculum is being mastered. Today's children are the most brand conscious in history. A 2002 Nickelodeon study discovered that the average ten-year-old had memorized 300 to 400 brands. Does this translate into purchases? Apparently, it does. The U.S., with just 4.5% of world population, now consumes 45% of global toy production. More alarmingly, children's consumption reaches far beyond toys. Journalist Alissa Quart reports that the year between elementary and middle school has become a popular time for cosmetic surgery, with kids opting for aesthetic enhancement of their eyes, lips, chins, and ears.

Corporations are trying to enlist teachers in the cause of consumption "education." A Crayola marketer explained to author Juliet Schor that the company uses them as "brand ambassadors." But this effort is far from the most ambitious. Serious marketers are involved in neuromarketing, the attempt to tap into the brains of consumers to discover deep subconscious forces that might be mobilized on behalf of the campaign to get people to consume without limit. One can well imagine the reaction here if the mullahs of Iran attempted to use brain science to induce more adherence to radical Islam.

Maybe we should get more kids to stay in school by stamping McDonalds' Golden Arches on their diplomas - or their brains.


Juliet Schor, "Born To Buy - The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture" (South End, 2004)

Jim Hightower, "There's Nothing In The Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos," (HarperCollins, 1997)

Bob Herbert, "Hard Roads Ahead," New York Times, May 17, 2008

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire" and "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at

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