Education Opinion

It’s All About Advertising

By Nancy Flanagan — March 13, 2012 3 min read
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Marvelous piece in the February Esquire: A Short Prayer for Advertising. Author Stephen Marche points out that “there is no outside the ad anymore"--even anti-advertising organizations like Adbusters are their own brand.

Everyone is part of the promotional machinery, and we are submitting to this machinery in every aspect of our existence. Advertising works: Why do you think Americans are so fat and in debt? A world of hyper-advertising in which advertising dominates the basic functions of living will obviously be a world of hyper-consumption.

Now--I get this, having taught middle school for 30 years. Teaching in a middle school is one big blur of cajoling, persuading, promoting, marketing and influencing. And it’s not just about managing erratic middle school behaviors--which sometimes need a touch of “threatening,” too--but core academics.

How do we get kids to love to read, to crave books by a particular author? To become fascinated by natural science or mathematical puzzle-solving? To build communities in schools as training for civic life? To pursue excellence in singing or sculpture? Teachers advertise. In a sense, it’s what we’re paid to do. Get kids excited about learning. Make them willing consumers of disciplinary ideas and content. Push them to engage and excel, for reasons ranging from pursuit of self-actualized lives to making the big bucks.

You can get on your high horse (yes, you, Archbishop of Canterbury) and excoriate the advertising culture in which we’re marinating. You can shield your small children from televised high-fructose cereal ads. But in the end, we’re all better off developing what the late Neil Postman called “crap detectors” because we live in an ad, ad, ad, ad world.

Lately, the national debate over education reform has been almost exclusively dominated by this sound-bite modus operandi: Students First. Teach for America. Stand for Children. And the corresponding, subconscious, ad-embedded idea that public school educators don’t put students first, stand up for the kids they serve, or teach as public service--an assertion that hard-working veteran teachers in our most challenging schools find outrageous, not to mention dead wrong.

Eventually--look at Mitt Romney--most advertising campaigns boil down to money. David and Goliath, with the resources piled up in one corner, and the outcome of public opinion a foregone conclusion, after the advertising does its work. Look at Michelle Rhee, warning Republican candidates to get on the “reform” bandwagon: Don’t be wasting time talking about getting rid of the Department of Education, when we can take down the unions! Don’t lose our public-opinion momentum here, folks!

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, David wins.

Prime example: what just happened in Florida. In spite of a barrage of calculated, even violent advertising language-- Parent Trigger and Parent Revolution---and the considerable political resources of two Florida governors, small-potatoes parent groups urged their senators not to give in to charter chains waiting in the wings to take over “failing” schools.

A parent in Florida says, about the well-funded, so-called “Parent Empowerment” machine: They were out in full force in the capitol wearing “Parent Power” yellow tee shirts, handing out flyers talking about FL parent groups as “union affiliates” and as “status quo” defenders. They were dropped off in vans.

Sometimes, small-budget good ideas win. Sometimes, the right thing happens.

So--wouldn’t it be great if we approached national public education policy from David’s point of view? What if we held a low-cost People’s Re-authorization of ESEA? Kept in all the good stuff about equity, all kids deserving a custom-tailored curriculum and instruction. Lost all the stuff about constant, expensive testing of little kids, humiliating teachers with bogus data analysis, and trying to use one of our great public resources--education--as a marketing opportunity.

Here are a few slogans that might resonate:

We want our children to be all they can be.

It costs a little more, but they’re worth it.

Think Different! Quality is Job #1!

Learning: It’s the Real Thing.

Aren’t you glad you support public education? Don’t you wish everybody did?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.