CERU: 12th Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends

Click for CERU websiteThe Commercialism in Education Research Unit, a partner center of the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, has released Click: The Twelfth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends: 2008-2009.

The word “Click” is part of the title this year (not just part of the link), since this year’s report is concerned with children getting plugged into the online consumer marketplace through their experience in schools:

As part of their efforts to create a total advertising environment, companies continue to aggressively market in school to children and youth. Advertisers now routinely blur the boundaries between editorial content and advertising in an effort to thoroughly infuse childhood with marketing messages. The goal of creating a total advertising environment has been brought closer to reality through the exploitation of digital venues such as video games, social networking websites, and cell phones.

This year‘s report considers how marketing and advertising subtly help shape children‘s socialization into values associated with commercialism. Although commercialism isn‘t explicitly included as part of the curriculum, it is taught subtly in school environments that include marketing and advertising. As marketing messages promote particular products, they simultaneously promote values that validate and support commercialism.

Some people — including many school-age kids — would ask, “So what? What’s so bad about commercialism?” After all, isn’t our freedom as consumers in the marketplace the very thing we work for in the unfree workplace, and the unfree classroom? For many, the Mall is a favorite place to hang.

Some might think the problem is that kids in school are being delivered as a captive audience for merchants. Well, of course, there is that; but the main concern of these reports over the years is with the students’ socialization into a consumerist value system, as can be seen by these headings in this year’s report:

  • The Values Taught by Marketing in Schools
    • Money and the Meaning of Happiness
    • Food and Nutrition
    • Sexuality and the Commodification of Desire

Still, there are those who would see this as just another tired old bugaboo of those fun-hating, freedom-hating lib-er-als that the talk show hosts are always talking about on their radio programs. Who are those critics of consumerism, anyway, to say that their values are somehow superior to the values chosen by the young people, themselves, and for themselves?

But that is the rub, isn’t it?

I don’t see my concern about commercialism in the schools as resting on my own personal views on the values of consumerism. I surely have those views, as reflected not just in my ideology but in my life.

My concern — and I think that of Alex Molnar and the other authors — is centered more on the loss of schools as places where young people can step out, for a few hours of their lives, at least, from the overwhelming, all-consuming forces and corporate appetites that exert so much control over what is possible for people to do and even to think in the mass-mediated world outside of schools. Maybe schools have never been as much a haven from all that as ideally they could be. But for some students (certainly for me) schools were places where we could consider other possibilities, exploring how people have lived and thought at other times and places, and to entertain diverse possibilities that could be possible for us now and in the future.

These annual reports from CERU show the alarming extent to which corporate commercial interests have been succeeding in a more and more total penetration of the actual curriculum (not just the formal curriculum) that kids experience in school. And to the extent that young people have been deprived of any opportunity, in school or elsewhere in their lives, to step out of the pervasive consumer culture and to entertain other possibilities for their life-orienting interests and values, how can anybody say that the choices made for them are in fact their own choices, by and for themselves?

Commercial penetration of life, consciousness, and subconsciousness in schools is only one moment in the totalizing penetration of our lifeworld, overall. There are those now warning that a public health care system in the United States would be a form of totalitarianism. What I see is totalitarianism of a different kind, the diffuse totalitarianism that drives out any basis for human choice or decision other than the kinds of choices and decisions afforded by the market.

This totalitarianism is diffuse because the market is diffuse — the opposite of concentrated, centralized command. It is no less totalitarian for that, since it allows only the possibilities that serve its own narrow interests and principles, and it seeks to penetrate and to control the totality of our lives, in every aspect and without exception.

As much as I respect Sheldon Wolin as a political theorist (it’s been almost 40 years now since I read his great book, Politics and vision: continuity and innovation in Western political thought), I think his recent warnings against “inverted totalitarianism” have missed what I see as the essence of totalitarianism: its drive to dominate all life in its totality.

Democracy, IncWolin writes about “inverted totalitarianism” in his new book, Democracy incorporated: managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism. He had explained his idea of this earlier, in an article ( “Inverted Totalitarianism” ) in The Nation magazine:

No doubt [my] remarks will be dismissed by some as alarmist, but I want to go further and name the emergent political system “inverted totalitarianism.” By inverted I mean that while the current system and its operatives share with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive expansionism, their methods and actions seem upside down. For example, in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis took power, the “streets” were dominated by totalitarian-oriented gangs of toughs, and whatever there was of democracy was confined to the government. In the United States, however, it is the streets where democracy is most alive–while the real danger lies with an increasingly unbridled government.

***

While the Nazi totalitarianism strove to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through joy”), inverted totalitarianism promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility. While the Nazis wanted a continuously mobilized society that would not only support the regime without complaint and enthusiastically vote “yes” at the periodic plebiscites, inverted totalitarianism wants a politically demobilized society that hardly votes at all.

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What is at stake, then, is nothing less than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century.

Wolin seems to be defining “totalitarianism” as the absence of political democracy. But a focus only on the distribution of political power and participation distracts us from considering how a totalitarian annihilation of true freedom can be effected by forces other than the political — and by forces operating diffusely, and not just from concentrated power centers.

China can hardly be seen as a democratic nation now, but at the level of people’s lives, it is also not totalitarian in the ways that Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia — and indeed China itself, not so long ago — had become. There are narrow limits on what people can do or say politically in China, but outside of politics, it can at least be argued that the Chinese enjoy a relatively high degree of personal freedom.

But if that isn’t true, I’d argue that it’s not because the Government or Party saturates all corners of the lives of the Chinese (as was the totalitarian tendency in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union), but that the Chinese themselves may be succumbing to a diffuse totalitarianism of capitalistic market forces.

To protect schools as nurseries for human freedom, we need to be alert to freedom’s threats and dangers.

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