“The wish to preserve the past rather than the hope of creating the future dominates the minds of those who control the teaching of the young.” Bertrand Russell
Not only is it ineffective to try and force children to learn, it is also unjust. But if you ask most people why we need a strong public school system, they will talk about social justice. They will tell you that the public school system forms the foundation of a caring, tolerant and democratic society. They will also tell you that a strong public school system provides equal opportunity for all, regardless of socio-economic background.
Those are terrific goals. Unfortunately, the reality does not reflect the ideology. Scratch the surface of most public school systems and you will find something quite different than justice and democracy, in spite of good intentions. You will find an archaic institution, which defies everything we know about effective organizations and what we have learned about cognitive development. You will also find an institution that perpetuates social hierarchies, disempowers people and forces them to do things against their will – supposedly for their own good – while encouraging a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. If a democratic society is one in which people are collectively in control of their lives and the lives of their communities, then our present-day school systems are anti-democratic.
The chief function of state-run public education has never been to empower citizens to make responsible decisions about the future of the earth or to provide the intellectual means for people to live harmoniously together. The purpose of schools has always been, at very least, to train an efficient workforce and, at worst, to imprint a social script written by the governing class. And that social script involved, as H. L. Mencken wrote in 1924, mass standardization.
One influential model of public schooling was created in Europe in the early 1800s when the Prussians needed a system of forced schooling that would teach men how to take orders so they would make obedient soldiers. Prussia was not alone in its need for a strong army and virtually all of the early enforcers of compulsory school attendance laws were European military dictatorships.
In Canada, one well known early pioneer of public education was Egerton Ryerson, who set up a free, compulsory school system in Ontario in the mid 19th century. One of his main aims was to preserve the class structure in place at the time. One of his system’s main features was corporal punishment, which quite handily (pun intended!) created docile, passive and submissive graduates.
Modern versions of those qualities are still the norm. Children are often promoted from one grade to the next based on desired social behavior, such as a strong work ethic, obedience, neat work habits, completed homework and good attendance. In some schools, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, you can pass a course just by showing up and doing what you are told, while not learning much or any of the content. (Many of us get good marks in such situations, but we have memorized the material on the exam and promptly forget it, which is not learning.) Processing students in this way efficiently gets them through school, gives them a diploma and might slot them into a job. And for this, they are supposed to be grateful and even eager to attend regularly!
So much for school being the great leveler, providing children with the opportunity to break out of poverty! In a study called “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” the late sociologist James Coleman found that “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.” Similarly, school boards that track the economic background of students and has consistently find that economic background is the best indicator of whether students will end up in blue collar jobs or in university.
Sociologists seem to agree that schools play a primary role in reinforcing the social and economic tone of a society (as opposed to changing it). At this time in history, the very structure of schools delivers a hidden socioeconomic curriculum of standardization, competition, productivity, linear thinking and hierarchical top-down management by experts. Virtually every facet of modern schooling seems to have been designed and implemented to promote the smooth functioning of the system, rather than for optimum learning. And as governments tighten their fiscal belts and slash school budgets, the system inevitably is refined for optimum efficiency.
If efficiency, productivity, accountability and standardization are desirable features of the social and economic climate in which we want to live, then schools must be doing a good job. However, if we strive for a more humane, democratic, creatively thinking society, then schools should be helping us understand where we have gone wrong and how to change things, rather than perpetuating systems that are not working in everyone’s best interests.
As we have already seen, children learn by example and from their environment. Most children’s early experiences are undemocratic. Their human rights, including free speech, are ignored in the name of protection. They are in the way and they are legally minor. At very young ages, they are forced – sometimes literally kicking and screaming – to attend an often unfriendly and sometimes threatening place that robs them of even more of their rights.
Teachers (benevolent and unaware as they often are of this situation) are allowed to exercise a kind of power over their students that has fewer restrictions than that allowed by caregivers in other institutions like jails. Students are taught about human rights and government in social studies classes and sometimes even play act the roles, but they are not able to practice these vital components of good citizenship in their daily lives at school. Children do not need to be taught about oppression; they are oppressed. They do not need to be taught about human rights abuses; their human rights are trampled on every day they are in school.
In the same way that children in our schools are ruled and regulated by a group of friendly “experts,” citizens in our countries are governed by a professional class of politicians and, in some cases, media. They are both similar to the competitive, top-down model of the marketplace. Instead of self-government, we have a representative democracy in which the elite have centralized power for their own benefit, just as power is centralized in school. And that is the way those in charge like it. Telling us what is good for us and selling us something (products or prescribed facts) is easier than to have us meddle in education, politics or economics.
In this kind of democracy, the role of citizens is not to author public policy, but merely to influence it. The object of political debate in a schooled society is not to discuss via a two-way dialogue, but to persuade, in the same way that children sometimes wheedle and pout and throw tantrums in order to get their way. Because most of us have never learned to take the initiative to make change, we resort to protesting, criticizing and complaining about what we are being fed…or to misbehaving when the teacher is looking the other way.
Physical domination because of size, age or gender has taught us that power flows from the top down. Big kids bully little kids, teachers and principals have power over their students, strong men abuse physically weaker women and children, big countries take over smaller ones and everyone trashes the environment.
Most of us accept this distribution of power, as well as its often brutal consequences. Those who do protest are made to feel like rebels and outsiders, scrambling for tidbits of public funding or begging their oppressors for money to pay the rent on a tiny, back street office…and often fighting off law enforcement officials when they take part in peaceful public protests.
Sometimes the protesters are successful. We change a program here, save a building from demolition there, secure some extra funding for a women’s shelter, protect a wildlife preserve from a road being widened, persuade politicians to amend a few pieces of legislation. Even when these activities accomplish what they were designed to do, they are just fighting symptoms and effects, rather than the root cause, which is misuse of power and undemocratic policy making.
Unfortunately, our bad experiences with power as young children lead us to condemn power. We confuse the kind of misuse of power that we are fighting with the positive power to control what happens to us, or at least to propose alternatives. Many of us have never even experienced the kind of collective power that can be used to build alternative institutions. Our schooling has led us to misunderstand the difference between the power to do something and the force that makes us do something.
And that makes us all vulnerable to the power of despots like Hitler, Mussolini and Pinochet or the many African dictators of more recent times. A different relationship to power might have allowed the citizens of Germany, Italy and Chile to prevent the horrendous deeds of their leaders. Or maybe not. However, history shows us that few people in these countries felt their voices were strong enough to counteract what was going on at the top, or they turned a blind eye to the abuses. Perhaps, as children in school, they were told one too many times to sit in their seats and listen, to put up their hands when they had to go to the bathroom, to buy what they were offered…all because someone else supposedly knew what was best for them. Perhaps, as I was as a child, they were told that children should be seen and not heard…and they believed that and carried it into adulthood.
The time is ripe for change because we now live in an era when information often has more power than physical strength. But we need new arrangements for handling that power. We need to replace our traditional hierarchical method of governing and educating ourselves with arrangements that give “power to the people” as John Lennon put it.
But we also have to find ways to encourage people to accept power over their own lives, which can be a scary prospect. And then, we need to invent ways to teach ourselves the skills to use it well for our common good.
Unfortunately, instead of pursuing ways to advance the process of democratization, schools seem to be concentrating these days on teaching children how to be good little consumers. In addition to the hidden economic agenda that we have already examined, corporations are becoming more overt in their goal of educating young consumers about their brands.
What is astonishing to me is the manner in which the merger of schools and corporations is being helped along quite happily by those in charge of schools, many of whom seem to act more like corporate CEOs than educators. A good example is the principal of a school in the American south who suspended a young boy because he dared to wear a Pepsi T-shirt during an event sponsored by Coca Cola. The principal said that his school badly needed the corporate sponsorship funds to replace declining public funding and that the student was undermining his ability to attract and retain that money.
Helping marketers cash in on schools’ need to raise money is, itself, becoming big business. There are even expensive conferences organized to help companies mold their tiny consumers. At one such event, entitled “Kid Power: Creative Kid-Targeted Marketing Strategies,” marketing guru James McNeal, who authored the book Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children, told participants that children are consumers-in-training with spending power of $20 billion. And what better place to train those budding consumers than in school, where the audience is captive?
Another presentation at that conference was made by a company called MIR Communications. MIR pitches itself as helping companies maximize their in-school presence through the use of marketing techniques like product sampling, sponsored lesson plans, sponsored school/class activities and contests. Sponsored educational materials are a favorite way for many companies to get their messages into classrooms. Actually public relations materials designed to look like classroom activities, they range from the overtly commercial like designing a McDonald’s restaurant to the more subtle lesson plan produced by Exxon about the flourishing wildlife in Alaska, which was designed to help the company clean up its image after the Valdez oil spill.
Students can do the Prego Thickness Experiment, a science experiment involving pizza. Or they can learn from star professional athletes how Nike finds “creative ways to balance the needs of business and the environment” through its Air to Earth environmental education program. A program developed by General Mills called Grow-Up! includes growth charts for students, booklets for parents and samples of the company’s Fruit Roll-Ups. Kellogg’s and Mars candy sponsor nutrition curricula, and polluters like Dupont, Dow Chemical and the Polystyrene Council sponsor environmental curricula.
These materials have traditionally taken the form of audiovisual material, websites, teachers’ kits, informational booklets, board games and, of course, the old reliable workbooks. Another standard approach involves companies giving prizes and incentives to schools and students as a result of students collecting cash register tapes or cereal box tops, or reading a certain number of books. And now, even textbooks are being used as promotional vehicles. For instance, a sixth grade math text published by McGraw-Hill asked students to figure out how much money they need to save to buy a pair of Nike brand shoes and teaches students fractions by counting M&M brand candies.
High school economics curriculum is often influenced by corporate foundations, particularly those with an extreme conservative philosophy. That results in activities and textbooks promoting, without question, a “free-market” ideology.
When the Consumers Union collected and evaluated samples of these so-called educational materials across a variety of subject areas a few years ago, it found that 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information and promoted a viewpoint that favored consumption of the sponsors’ products. Surprise, surprise! That was precisely the point of the exercise.
A more blatant way companies are selling to this captive school audience is through direct advertising, which can appear on school walls, posters, buses, computer screen savers and athletic scoreboards. There are also a number of advertising-funded magazines, which are geared to curriculum topics and distributed free to schools to be used as teaching aids. Then there is the simple idea of giving schools free textbook covers with pictures of sports and music celebrities, public service messages and ads from fast food and clothing companies. Companies find this is a great way to reach bored students while helping schools preserve expensive textbooks.
Perhaps the most seductive way to reach these consumers-in-waiting is via television in the classroom. Channel One reaches over six million teenaged students in 11,000 American schools with 12-minute current events programs that include two minutes of commercials from clothing and junk food manufacturers. It offers schools free audiovisual equipment in exchange for the right to broadcast its programming. A similar project in Canada called Youth News Network (YNN) had a more difficult time infiltrating schools during the 1990s, with teachers’ organizations, school boards and some provincial governments blocking its path to the degree that it went out of business.
To their credit, some school systems present media literacy programs to counteract this sort of commercialization. However, many of these courses have been marginalized due to a back-to-basics emphasis on the “Three Rs.” At any rate, many of them concentrate on print media, television and radio, children’s literature and the Internet, dealing only peripherally with the consumer agenda in their own schools.
Professional sports “heroes” figure prominently in in-school marketing pitches. Of course, competitive sports has always been a mainstay of school life, especially for boys. The ability to be competitive is thought to be crucial to the development of a well functioning business sector, while cooperative skills are traditionally frowned upon. However, in recent years, professional sports teams have joined other corporations in the invasion of the classroom with their own sponsored lesson plans. For instance, a National Hockey League sports themed elementary school curriculum includes workbooks emblazoned with team logos, NHL lore and pictures of Wayne Gretzky.
Aside from the obvious problems of encouraging children to worship as heroes rich men who play an increasingly violent “game,” such materials teach the passivity of purchased spectator entertainment instead of active participation, whether it be in sports, the arts or other recreational activities. As we have already seen, children are being taught that they are not “expert” enough to entertain themselves; professional sports in the classroom just reinforces that disempowering notion.
Even our universities are losing their intellectual way in the chase for funding for themselves and highly paid jobs for their graduates. Instead of being incubators of ideas that improve the world, they are becoming places that convert attendance and research into wealth. Just half a century ago, universities were still places where the emphasis was on forming and discussing ideas, where people prepared for a lifetime of public service, where the demise of corrupt or repressive regimes was plotted, and where free speech and democracy were protected. But now, researchers in the university community are increasingly relying on the corporations who pay their bills to tell them what to study and how to interpret the results. We still see the occasional rebellious burst of creativity from within the walls of post-secondary institutions, but too often those bursts are quickly smothered by the forces of efficiency, competition and corporate accountability.
This corporate agenda is not limited to North America. It is being pursued relentlessly and successfully to all corners of the developing world, where it is especially worrisome. Many people in other countries who do not go to school – but want to – are motivated by a desire to emulate the North American way of life. The problem is that not only are they being robbed of their traditions and culture by being targeted by corporate marketing machines, and their desire to improve their quality of life plays them right into the hands of those very marketers. Children and adults alike prefer American goods bearing brand names they have learned about through movies, television and advertising. This includes sugary breakfast cereal and American cigarettes, as well as energy guzzling luxuries like cars and electric toothbrushes.
Sadly, these people have been sold a bill of goods. While nobody can dispute the importance of literacy, having received straight “A”s in school may provide the means to respond to advertisements for computers, televisions and electric toothbrushes. But it may still leave people powerless to obtain or retain jobs in their communities or to protect the source of their drinking water from corporate pollution. Or worse, they may not even be able to recognize the importance of keeping jobs in their communities or to make the connection between a logging company’s clear-cut and their polluted well.
Once people are trained to be consumers, the differences among them widen. In virtually every country in the world, the amount of material consumption by college graduates sets the standard for everyone else. Those with degrees can afford televisions and cars; those without, cannot. The fewer university graduates there are in a country, the more their standard of living is aspired to by others. The trouble is, the planet will not survive if the developing world tries to mimic North America’s high levels of consumption.
So what can we do to create an education system that is truly democratic and public? First of all, we can start thinking out of the education-equals-school box.
We can respect and advocate for young people’s right to make their own decisions (within parameters that address their physical and emotional safety, of course).
When children are part of a community, they have an interest in making that community function well. They take responsibility for their actions and to contribute to the group. They encourage each other’s learning, and use other children and adults as resources for their own learning. So we should trust their ability to live democratically and cooperatively if given the opportunity…and learn from them.
One of the big changes we need to make (and one which underlies the overturning of every assumption in this book) is to learn to like children and to want them around all day. Many so-called developed countries – especially those in North America – are not particularly child- or family-friendly. Our cities, our workplaces, our institutions – all facets of daily life, in fact – are not fully open to children, who are relegated to segregated spaces through no choice of their own.
Young people are kept away from many places and much equipment, on the grounds that they would damage either themselves or their surroundings if given free access to things usually available only to the “experts.” Or they are denied access on the grounds that they would slow down the important work of production and consumption. None of these are good enough excuses to bar children from learning from and within their communities.
A true learning society would make the modifications necessary so that a wide variety of experiences could be accessible to people of all ages and abilities. If governments don’t feel they have new funds available, decreasing spending on salaries, text books, tests and the other paraphernalia that are part of the school industry will free-up money for creating a learning society.What I am suggesting is that we “de-professionalize” the educational environment and put learning back into our communities and into the hands of learners, with the support of mentors and truly stimulating environments. As we have seen throughout this book, that will not be an easy task, since there are many assumptions to challenge and vested interests in the way. As the relatively small population of homeschooling families has discovered over the past few decades, deschooling ourselves can be as difficult as renouncing limitless consumption as a way of life.
One challenge to making this change is that not all children are blessed with access to people who can facilitate an ideal learning environment or advocate for them in the adult world. Many children lack even the basic necessities, let alone live in a family that is strong enough to nurture learning. But the solution for that is to provide social and economic supports to families in crisis, not to subject children to an obsolete and unjust method of education.
This essay is an excerpt from the book Challenging Assumptions in Education (1999, 2008, The Alternate Press).