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Commercialism and the Global Economy in Schools: What Happened to Citizenship?

Lisa Howell The University of Ottawa


Abstract This paper explores the decline of citizenship education as related to the rise in commercialism and corporate influence in schools. The evolution of citizenship education is briefly outlined and the reasons for its decline are explored. Financial constraints of the public education system, standardized testing and a strong vocational mandate are cited as reasons why schools have become vulnerable to corporate influence. The paper examines the effect that this influence has had on students and society and suggests that there is a strong need to reintroduce citizenship education. The paper argues that citizenship education will provide immunity to the corporate world in which students are undeniably a part of. Citizenship education will prepare students to be aware of, to question and to be critical of the issues that surround them, thus benefiting our global community.


Commercialism and the Global Economy in Schools: What Happened to Citizenship? Schools are facing challenges today that would have many of the founders of public education rolling in their graves. Standardized testing, lack of funding, few resources, over-sized classes and specialist cut-backs (to name a few) are contributing to a growing crisis in our education system and are ultimately impacting the foundations of schooling. Although preparing students for citizenship was the very reason why the state compelled parents to send their children to school in the first place (Osborne, 2000, p. 1) citizenship education is being undermined, under taught and undervalued in many of our schools. There is no doubt that there are many reasons why citizenship is no longer actively expected or achieved in many educational systems, especially considering that for years, champions of high-stakes testing and mandatory curriculum standards have invoked a need to ratchet up the skills of future employees (Kohn, 2007, p.1) rather than to prepare students for engagement in civic life. Why are schools so concerned with producing workers rather than citizens? If schools are in the business of creating workers, who then has a say in the curriculum students are learning and, as importantly, what they are not learning? I will argue that the greatest threat to the engagement of students in democratic education is the fact that in light of financial constraints and the push to create workers rather than citizens, many schools are becoming corporate partners rather than public learning places. This shift has meant that corporate ideology ultimately undermines the democracy our schools purportedly serve...corporations are out for themselves, whereas democratic citizens, ideally, are out for each other ( Kovacs, 2005, p.1). Authentic citizenship education, therefore, is left in the dust of corporate sponsored lessons, brand loyalty and a curriculum that is driven by corporations. When we allow our students to become the targets of marketers rather than the critics of it, we are certainly not preparing them for citizenship, but rather, we are selling them out, quite literally. I will argue that democratic citizenship education provides our students with the critical skills of thinking and


critiquing that will allow them to understand and perhaps contest the corporate influences that surround them. If schools are in fact in the business of developing learners and thinkers and not only consumers and skilled workers, then a proper curriculum for democracy requires both the study and the practice of democracy (Parker, 2005, p.351). The idea that schools were founded to develop democratic citizens is well documented and explicitly evident in the curricula of the past. Educationalist John Dewey wrote: The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts. (1916, p. 352) John Dewey was among the first to argue that the purpose of education was to prepare students for civic engagement by engaging them in life itself. Indeed, many other academic theorists such as John Stuart Mills and T.H. Green had very undemocratic educations in terms of process but had a deep acquaintance with history, philosophy and literature and the capacity to pursue their ideas (Osborne, 2000, p. 15). It would seem, then, that rich subject content as well as opportunities for experience, critical thinking and questioning are part of Deweys vision of democratic citizenship. Although many of the first schools in Canada and around the world may have been seen as undemocratic in this view, from their very beginnings public schools in Canada, as in other countries, were expected to prepare the young for citizenship (Osborne, 2000, p. 1). At schools, students were taught not only subject content, but also cultural and social expectations. Students were taught how to be good citizens and thinkers. British Columbia socialist Angus McInnis wrote in 1924 that education, even present-day education, with all its defects tends to stimulate the imagination and sharpen the perceptions of those who


receive it; and under adverse conditions they begin to question the fitness of things (Barman, 1988, p.20). Although there was much disagreement on what citizenship was and how it should be taught, most agreed that educating young people for citizenship was an important goal. For much of the twentieth century, therefore, educationists paid conspicuous and continuing attention to the role of schools in producing citizens. (Osborne, 2000, p. 2) By the early 1980s, most Canadian schools saw a movement away from this fundamental principal of educating citizens. As the new global economy became increasingly powerful, schools responded by becoming highly vocational in content and methodology so as to produce highly skilled workers for the economy. This vocational orientation stresses the promotion of self-interest with little emphasis on the promotion of the public good (Bruno-Jofre & Henley, 2000, p. 39). Although some schools engage in citizenship-like activities such as character education, virtue education, student councils, environmentalism and peer helpers, at the policymaking level the talk was increasingly on international competitiveness and entrepreneurialism (Osborne, 2000, p. 2). Moreover, when we allow schools to become venues for commercial activity, we downgrade the educational experience by teaching kids implicitly and explicitly that competition and consumerism are just as, if not more important than, cooperation and citizenship (Repo and Shaker, 2006, p.84). This cohesion of school with the global economy has opened the door for corporate agendas to take the desk at the front of the classroom rather than the ideas, interests and needs of the local school community. In his article, Bill Gates and the Corporatization of American Public Schools, Philip Kovacs (2005) writes:

One cant help but wonder how increasing achievement will prepare students for citizenship. Arguably, the best way to improve citizenship is to send children out into the


community as citizensthis, of course, is not the type of education that Gates and other business leaders are after, as they need number crunchers whipped into shape by the proverbial raised bar. (p. 1-2)

Aside from citizenship education being isolated to the realms of social studies or extracurricular activity, this push to transform schools into training grounds has also brought with it standardized testing. Schools and politicians are indeed eager to find out how their future economies will perform. Standardized testing requires teachers and students to spend much of their time preparing for the tests, which are in Mathematics and Language Arts. Little time is left for other subjects, such as citizenship, art or even recess, all in the name of spending more time on task (Kovacs, 2005, p. 2). Countries compare standardized tests internationally as they look to determine how their future generations will compete in the global economy. The results of standardized testing, and the goals of the global economy, inform the curriculum, leaving out fast areas of knowledge. Knowledge such as history, the arts and philosophy; knowledge that indeed sculpted many of the minds of our great theorists. The immense pressures of standardized testing also leave schools prey to corporate incentive programs, such as Pizza Huts Book it! Program to boost test scores (Garcia & Molnar, 2006, p. 78). Corporations have yet another door to enter into our schools; using rewards to motivate students to achieve more, attend school more often and become better skilled-workers. In Empty Calories: Commercializing activities in Americas Schools, Alex Molnar and David Garcia (2005) write: A relatively new phenomenon that helps to promote commercialism in schools is the role played by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The increasing emphasis


on test scores as measures of achievement and on numerical accountability measures has created a context in which incentive programs may be particularly enticing for schools seeking to boost those test scores. NCLBs consideration of attendance rates also has led to attendance-incentive programs in some schools. (p. 4) Exacerbating the issues of testing and the drive to create a strong future economy is the fact that schools have also experienced financial constraint due to chronic underfunding that leaves them vulnerable to commercial influence the money must come from somewhere theory of education funding (Repo & Shaker, 2006, p.78). Molnar and Garcia (2006) state that the reduction of public funds available to schools and the desire of corporations to be visible in schools have produced a climate in which inadequate public funding is accepted as normal and corporate dollars are eagerly sought (p. 78). When we allow corporations to bring their advertisement- laden materials into our schools, we are not engaging our students in this type of critical engagement that promotes the discussion that Dewey and his counterparts see as the forefront of democratic education. What we do instead is expose them to a biased view that teaches them what to know and therefore, what to think. In The 500-Pound Gorilla education critic Alfie Kohn (2002) muses: Its worth thinking about how corporate sponsorship is likely to affect what is included and not included in these lessons. How likely is it that the makers of Clearasil would emphasize that how you feel about yourself should not primarily be a function of how you look? Or consider a hypothetical unit on nutrition underwritten by Kraft General Foods (or by McDonalds or Coca-Cola): would you expect to find any mention of the fact that the food you prepare yourself is likely to be more nutritious than processed products in boxes and jars and cans? Or that the best way to quench your thirst is


actually to drink water? Or that a well-balanced diet requires little or no meat? Or that smoking causes cancer? (Kraft General Foods -- and Nabisco, for that matter -- are owned by a tobacco company.) (Para 7). Corporate-sponsored lessons leave out information and are quite often misinforming. They present a biased and incomplete look at products and are self-serving to the corporations, not to the students. Why would we want our lessons to serve a corporation rather than our students? What does this say about the way we view them, our education system and ourselves as educators? Is our mission of providing the best education for all students compatible with practices that offer those students up as an untapped point of entry to marketers? (as cited in Molnar and Garcia, 2006, p. 82) Could we indeed do something different, and better? Could we look at corporate-sponsored lessons with a critical eye and deconstruct them to understand the subtleties and the dangers? Could we engage students in conversations about what is indeed left out and why? Could we elicit debate in our classrooms about commercialism in schools? Could we encourage our students to become engaged in the political movement to monitor and protect our schools from commercialism? Would this constitute citizenship education? It would seem so. Findings from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) study of 90,000 students in 28 countries advances the importance of issues discussions in open classroom climate (as cited in Hess, 2004, p. 257) In an open classroom climate, students experience their classrooms as places to investigate issues and explore their opinions and those of their peers (Hess, 2004, p. 258). In the world of corporate-funded schools and skilled-geared curriculums, however, the open classroom climate of discussion may be dangerous for the political agenda and the corporations that see schools as


prime targets for reaching-and teaching- consumers. The fact is that classrooms which promote discussion, criticalness, questioning, wondering and curiosity are preparing students to think, and, as Dewey said, anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy. (as cited in Martin & Loomis, 2006, p. 50) Indeed this was the case at a New England high school as described in this passage by Repo and Shaker (2006): When a student at a New England high school attended a mandatory school assembly where students were instructed by uniformed McDonalds employees about job interview skills, he took the opportunity to outline some of his criticism of the corporation. For this, he was publicly reprimanded, forced to write a written apology to the McDonalds representative, and then, under threat of suspension, required to go on the school P.A. system (which all students have to listen to) and apologize to the school and the McDonalds representative for his statements about McDonalds and for disrupting the assembly. (p.74) This is a terribly sad outcome of a student who had the ability to think critically and to seek engagement in dialogue and debate. Why was the student not applauded for his desire to think and ask questions? Instead, he was forced to apologize over the P.A. system, thereby giving each and every other student the explicit message on behalf of the school: Dont think. Dont ask questions. That is not the purpose of school. Do not dissent, not even politely. Unfortunately, examples of corporate influence explicitly hindering the pursuit of student discussion and debate are numerous. Corporate influence of this nature seems to directly contradict to the research findings of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which reports that open classroom climate for discussion is a



significant predictor of civic knowledge, support for democratic values, participation in political discussion and political engagement (Hess, 2004, p. 258) The student who spoke critically about MacDonalds and was subsequently reprimanded for it is, regrettably, not alone. In 1998, a Georgia High school student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt on Coke in Education Day which was part of a larger promotional Team up with Coca-Cola Contest. ( Repo and Shaker, 2004, p.74) The situations involving these two students underline that schools, under the influence of corporate funding, act to restrict their students rights to freedom of speech and dress to protect their sponsored programs and corporate involvement. We live in the era of corporate-driven policies, consumerism, standardized testing and financial cutbacks to education. These issues have all seeped into our schools, informing our curriculums and shaping what we do and do not teach. We seem to have forgotten that students will grow up to be not only consumers and workers that participate in the global economy, but they will also be part of the world. If we expect our global economy to thrive, we need successful societies that include social policies, political and electoral involvement, appreciation and engagement of the arts and an evolving history that is indeed woven by us all. Educating students to live in the real world and have the capability to problem-solve, make complex decisions and ultimately contribute to a community is immunity in todays world of corporate influence. We know that many situations in our contemporary society lead to the erosion of the collective community. Our quest for individualism has created an inward turning that produces competiveness, self-sufficiency and whose self-centres undermines his or her citizen identity, causing it to wither or to never take root in the first place. Private gain is the goal, and the community had better not get in the way (Parker, 2005, p.344).



Aside from placing our students in the hands of the marketers, commercialism in schools targets the democratic foundations of public education. In his article, Whats wrong with commercialization of public education? Larry Kuehn asserts that the ultimate problem of commercialism in schools is that it undermines the principles of democracy: The public schools are an integral part of the institutions of democracy. Democracy requires public space, places where debate and discussion inform decision-making. And it requires education that prepares people to participate as critical citizens in that public space (2003, para. 1). Commercialism and corporate influence in our schools is part of the systemic erosion of our collective communities and democratic spaces. To ensure that we are educating to build community, we must educate to build and strengthen communities, not corporations. Creating classrooms that foster open-mindedness, dialogue, critical response, compassion and a sense of helping others builds community. It ensures that students will have the chance to speak their minds, engage in controversial issues and think beyond the text. It immunizes them to the corporate world, encourages them to be conscious consumers and prepares them to become the well-rounded citizens, not only workers that this global community so desperately needs.




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