There once was a time when the school was a sanctuary from commercialism. Not anymore.
Every once in a while, life presents us with a “snapshot” that illuminates more than just what’s in the picture. In my line of work for the past 32 years, such snapshots abound. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see one, a window through which the mind’s eye can view a broader horizon, a larger truth.
My line of work, I must tell you, is in a bad way. I teach, and the public schools are under assault. The prognosis is not good. My friend John, who has been at it almost as long as I have, likens the current state of affairs to the Titanic heading toward the iceberg. That may be a fitting image to some, but I doubt we’ll ever make it to the great collision. Still, we seem to be taking on water, and the sound of rivets popping up and down the hull can be heard almost daily.
So my latest mental snapshot—one that’s been in the making for a number of years—may help explain why we’re having so much trouble keeping the ship of education afloat. It features vending machines, ad campaigns, and the invasion of public schools by commercial interests, an idea that was unheard of for the first two-thirds of my teaching career.
There once was a time when the school was, in fact, a sanctuary from commercialism. Then, the school experience was not unlike the religious one: Both required quiet time to learn and reflect, both demanded a dedication of purpose, both sought to keep out the corrupting influences of the outside world.
But all that started to change a decade or so back. I sensed we were in trouble when a principal I once worked with, now long gone, sold wall space at our school to advertisers. Just a few dollars for “extras,” just a little bit of wall space. But those ads employed the most devious manipulations imaginable to attract their targeted teenage audience, all the while pretending to deliver some sort of educational message.
Not long after that, this same administrator introduced vending machines to our hallways. He had to be persuaded that the machines should be off-limits and inoperable during class time. Apparently, it was not obvious to him that those who actually taught might find soda pop and snacks a distraction. Nor did he seem to appreciate that commercialism might create an image that was exactly the opposite of what was needed in a learning environment.
As it turns out, he was, sadly, ahead of the curve. A few years later, I read in the papers of the “pouring rights” controversy at the University of Illinois. The idea that this great research institution had lowered itself to the level of Madison Avenue’s weighty issue of which is better, Pepsi or Coke, was amusing back then.
But now, what passes for our public school leadership has taken the game to a whole new level. All across the land—and in my district, too—schools are cozying up to soda-pop makers and cutting lucrative deals. The transactions may reap great short-term gain, but that comes at a very high cost. I think we’re proving Bob Dylan’s ‘60s axiom quite true today: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
School boards that fund education through commercial sales are ignoring their fundamental responsibilities.
It is not uncommon for the average school district to be guaranteed six-figure advances for signing cola contracts, as well as a sizable chunk of the vending profits. When you ask administrators about it, they’re apt to talk glibly of market shares and the perks offered by these companies, information they seem to understand with greater acuity than they do the curriculum or the discipline code.
The trend in schools is to have these machines operating nonstop during class hours, allowing students to saturate themselves with caffeine and sugar all day long. No one in the top leadership apparently sees anything wrong with this. All they see are revenues. They speak glowingly of educational gadgetry and new gym floors, all made possible through the “donations” of companies using the schools to secure their share of the cola or candy market for years to come. Real donations, of course, come without strings, a point lost on many of today’s educational leaders.
My own district seemed particularly proud of the fact that it was the first in the nation to offer students both Pepsi and Coke. I guess this could be seen as an extension of today’s popular mantra in schools: CHOICE! Since we already offer parents a choice of which school their child may attend, and at which ability level he or she may work, it seems only natural that all students, K-12, be given a choice of soft drinks, too.
When I asked a local school official once whether he might be just a tad uncomfortable with the idea of an 8-year-old nursing a 20-ounce bottle of Coke while munching on a bag of chips in math class, he told me he had “no problem.”
Maybe that man didn’t see—couldn’t see—what I do. The consumption of junk food and soft drinks, whether by a cherubic 8-year-old or a surly teenager, is a leisure activity; it’s passive. Learning, on the other hand, requires active engagement. And can anyone not comprehend the hypocrisy of teaching good nutrition and environmental awareness in a school curriculum while selling students nutritionally damaging products in throwaway plastic containers? This is not to mention, of course, that it might be a bad idea to offer the most overweight and hyperactive generation in American history more empty calories and jolts of caffeine.
Beyond these considerations, though, is an overriding ethical question: What do the public schools really stand for? In a society that saturates the lives of children with commercialism, the school, it seems to me, must work doubly hard to fight the temptation to join that race. We’re supposed to be in the business of developing citizens, not consumers.
We're supposed to be in the business of developing citizens, not consumers.
And so, let us consider today’s snapshot: A standard-variety American teenager, lounging placidly in his classroom seat, a bottle of carbonated stimulant in one hand, a half-eaten Snickers bar in the other. This future leader might as well be watching “South Park” on TV.
At the front of the class, meanwhile, stands the teacher, shoulders drooped in a gesture of hopelessness, trying to explain the American Revolution, or perhaps the intricacies of fiber optics, in an atmosphere more suitable to video games. As they say so often these days, what’s wrong with this picture?
More important, what’s in the picture that we don’t see? For me, the hidden element in this snapshot is an educational bureaucracy with a leadership vacuum. School leaders who cannot resist the shallow attractions of short-term profit will never lead our schools away from the mass retreats we are witnessing in both discipline and academic expectations. And school boards that fund education through such sales are ignoring their fundamental responsibilities.
As I packed up to go home from my school one night, Margo, the school custodian, paused briefly in her floor-sweeping to ask me what I thought of the three giant new vending machines installed just a few feet from my classroom door. “I don’t much like them, Margo,” I said. She agreed, and I offered her my sympathy for having to clean up after the inevitable spills and wrapper drops.
“Yeah, but that’s not why I’m against it,” she said. “Cleaning up is my job, I can handle that. But this is school. That stuff doesn’t belong here!”
Hooray for Margo.
Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer, a recently retired schoolteacher, and a former school department head in Champaign, Ill.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Carbonated Curriculum