Commercialism has been creeping into classrooms for decades, but only since the 1980s have school-business ties gained legitimacy and a firm foothold in public education. The consequences will be profound.
A new school year is under way, and all over America parents have begun to ask their young scholars, “What did you learn in school today?” In past years, many parents were surprised to discover that their children were learning how Gushers fruit snacks resemble geothermic phenomena (compliments of General Mills); or about the history of the potato chip (compliments of the Potato Board and the Snack Food Association); or that people have “good hair days” and “bad hair days” (compliments of Revlon).
Corporate influence on what children learn doesn't end with ads for products and services. American students are introduced to environmental issues as they use materials supplied by corporations who pollute the soil, air, and water. They have good eating habits explained to them by purveyors of junk food. And there is a good chance that they'll be taught the virtues of corporate- supported economic initiatives, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, with handouts on “critical thinking” bankrolled by Mobil Oil, a supporter of the pact.
For Schools: Lean Times, Laxer Values
Corporate attempts to push their products and points of view in schools and classrooms are nothing new. Such efforts have been going on for most of this century. However, in the relentlessly pro-business 1980s, a Rubicon of sorts was crossed. Marketing and public relations schemes that would have been rejected in more sensible times were unashamedly characterized as (1) legitimate contributions to the curriculum, (2) helpful teaching aids, (3) a good way to encourage school-business cooperation, or (4) a way for schools to earn money that in previous years would have come from the public purse.
Some educators defended these practices; a few vehemently opposed them; most, if they thought about it at all, seemed to dismiss them as a harmless concession to the times. Sadly, the cumulative effect of the commercial infiltration has been anything but harmless. As more and more schools embraced—or at least tolerated—corporate-sponsored materials, commercialism in the school and classroom acquired an unprecedented legitimacy.
Buying Into the Classroom
By the late 1980s, commercialism in schools had become so commonplace and so widely accepted that Whittle Communications' Channel One, a 12-minute, closed-circuit newscast with 2 minutes of commercials, was taken seriously as an educational reform proposal. Research now indicates that the broadcast contributes little to students' understanding of current events; however, it has made a lot of money for Whittle Communications (and is presumably a money maker for its new owner, K-III).
Critics have paid most attention to Channel One's short-term profitability and its requirement that students watch commercials. Channel One's most powerful and lasting impact, however, is likely to be its success in making the link between corporate profits and educational innovation seem necessary and logical.
Whittle Communications further expanded the frontier of educational commercialism by following up Channel One with the Edison Project, a chain of for-profit schools incorporating an array of high-tech innovations. Although the project was unable to attract enough investors to proceed as originally planned, it helped make for-profit schools a thinkable educational policy option.
Channel One and the Edison Project also have helped make the world safe for other profit-making educational ventures that promise high-tech school improvement. Regional telephone companies, for example, are currently promoting a variety of schemes to transform public schools into “schools of tomorrow.” Not surprisingly, these schools will feature the electronic messaging, telephonic, and information processing services that telephone companies are eager to sell.
From soft drinks ads to sponsorship of school sports, from the corporate line in the curriculum to classrooms for profit, commercial logic is now firmly entrenched in our schools. Over the next several years, school-based commercial activities will likely proliferate.
Let Them Use Typewriters
When public schools implement educational reforms that are based on generating corporate profits, it raises serious questions about the character of public education and, by extension, the nature of our civic culture.
For example, if technology is indeed the key to the “world of tomorrow,” should children's access to the knowledge and skills necessary to use that technology depend on their school district's ability to meet the commercial demands of a private corporation? If the information necessary for full citizenship is available only to those who can afford to buy it, then information technology may increase the already dramatic inequalities in our society—inside and outside the schools.
Unless there is a change in policy, by the end of the century, the link between public education and schools' ability to deliver corporate profits may by impossible to sever. And if that happens, the substitution of market values for democratic values in public education will largely be accomplished. If so, parents in the next millennium may find themselves asking their children, “How much profit did you make for your school's sponsor today?”
Alex Molnar is Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201. He is consulting editor for Educational Leadership's “Contemporary Issues” section. His book, Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of American School Reform, will be published in 1996 by Westview Press.