Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Education Incorporated?

From the management of public schools to the content of the curriculum, corporate values threaten the democratic purposes of public education.

School is . . . the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test markets, promote sampling and trial usage and—above all—to generate immediate sales.—Lifetime Learning System (Molnar, 1996a)
One of the most important legacies of public education has been to provide students with the critical capacities, the knowledge, and the values to become active citizens striving to realize a vibrant democratic society. Within this tradition, Americans have defined schooling as a public good and a fundamental right (Dewey, 1916; Giroux, 1988). Such a definition rightfully asserts the primacy of democratic values over corporate culture and commercial values.
Schools are an important indicator of the well-being of a democratic society. They remind us of the civic values that must be passed on to young people in order for them to think critically; to participate in policy decisions that affect their lives; and to transform the racial, social, and economic inequities that close down democratic social relations. Yet as crucial as the role of public schooling has been in U.S. history, this role is facing an unprecedented attack from proponents of market ideology who strongly advocate the unparalleled expansion of corporate culture (Molnar, 1996a; Pecora, 1998; Consumer Union Education Services, 1998).

Preparing Citizens or Consumers?

Growing up corporate has become a way of life for youth in the United States. This is evident as corporate mergers consolidate control of assets and markets, particularly as such corporations extend their influence over the media and its management of public opinion. But it is also apparent in the accelerated commercialism in everyday life, including the "commercialization of public schools, the renaming of public streets for commercial sponsors, . . . [and even] restroom advertising" (Wright, 1997, p. 181). Although many observers recognize that market culture exercises a powerful role in shaping identities, it still comes as a shock when an increasing number of young people, when asked to provide a definition for democracy, answer by referring to "the freedom to buy and consume whatever they wish, without government restriction" (Wright, 1997, p. 182).
Growing up corporate suggests that as commercial culture replaces public culture, the language of the market becomes a substitute for the language of democracy. At the same time, commercial culture erodes civil society as the function of schooling shifts from creating a "democracy of citizens [to] a democracy of consumers" (Grace, 1997, p. 315). One consequence is that consumerism appears to be the only kind of citizenship being offered to children and adults.
Our youth are absorbing the most dangerous aspects of the commercialization of everyday life. Within corporate models of schooling, young people are now subject to the same processes of "corporatization" that have excluded all but the most profitable and most efficient from the economic life of the nation. No longer representing a cornerstone of democracy, schools within an ever-aggressive corporate culture are reduced to new investment opportunities, just as students represent a captive market and new opportunities for profits. And the stakes are high. Education becomes less a force for social improvement than a force for commercial investment. Such education promises a high yield and substantive returns for those young people privileged enough to have the resources and the power to make their choices matter—and it becomes a grave loss for those who lack the resources to participate in this latest growth industry.

Reading, Writing, . . . and Purchasing?

Students are a captive audience in public schools. From buses to book covers, commercial interests are marketing products to children. Here are a few examples from the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education:

  • An Exxon curriculum teaches young kids how the Valdez oil spill was an example of environmental protection.

  • In Colorado Springs, Colorado, 7-Up and Burger King advertise on the sides of school buses.

  • Dow Chemical's Chem-TV and Chemapalooza videos feature teenagers dancing and singing about the wonderful world of chemicals.

  • On National Depression Screening Day, pharmaceutical representatives who market Prozac talked about depression to high school assemblies.

  • A McDonald's curriculum teaches about deforestation, but fails to mention rain forest destruction resulting from beef cattle ranching.

  • Clairol distributes free bags of shampoo to students as they leave school, along with surveys asking whether they had "a good or bad hair day."

  • A Nike program asks young people to devote a week of classroom time to learning the life cycle of a Nike shoe. The curriculum fails to address the sweatshop portion of the manufacturing process.

  • A Texas school roof features a Dr. Pepper logo to be seen by planes flying overhead.

For more information, contact the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, 1714 Franklin St., Ste. 100-306, Oakland, CA 94612 (e-mail: unplug.ig.org; phone: 510-268-1100).

Corporate Models of Schooling

According to the Education Industry Directory, the for-profit education market represents potential revenue of $600 billion for corporate interests (Applebome, 1996). Not only is the corporate takeover of schools rationalized in the name of profits and market efficiency alone, but it is also legitimated through the call for vouchers, privatized choice plans, and excellence. Although this discourse cloaks itself in the democratic principles of freedom, individualism, and consumer rights, it fails to provide the broader historical, social, and political contexts necessary to make such principles meaningful and applicable, particularly with respect to the problems facing public schools. For instance, advocates of privatization and choice have little to say about the relationship between choice and economic power, nor do they provide any context to explain public school failure in recent decades. They ignore factors such as joblessness, poverty, racism, crumbling school structures, and unequal school funding.
Refusing to address the financial inequities that haunt public schools, advocates of the corporate model of schooling maintain ideas and images that reek with the rhetoric of insincerity and the politics of social indifference. Most disturbing about the market approach to schooling is not only that it is bereft of a vocabulary of ethics and values but also that it has the power to override competing value systems. Such systems are not commercial in nature but critical to a just society. Once-cherished educational imperatives that enabled the capacity for democratic participation, social justice, and democratic relations—especially as countermeasures to the limits and excesses of the market—are ignored.

Commercialization in Schools

Corporate culture does not reside only in the placement of public schools in the control of corporate contractors. It is also visible in the growing commercialization of school space and curriculums. Strapped for money, many public schools have had to lease out space in their hallways, buses, restrooms, and school cafeterias, transforming such spaces into glittering billboards for the highest corporate bidder (Consumer Union Education Services, 1998). School notices, classroom displays, and student artwork have been replaced by advertisements for Coca Cola, Pepsi, Nike, Hollywood films, and a litany of other products. Invaded by candy manufacturers, breakfast cereal makers, sneaker companies, and fast food chains, schools increasingly offer the not-so-subtle message to students that everything is for sale—including student identities, desires, and values.
Seduced by the lure of free equipment and money, schools all too readily make the transition from allowing advertising to offering commercial merchandise in the form of curricular materials designed to build brand loyalty among members of a captive public school audience. Although schools may reap small financial benefits from such transactions, the real profits go to the corporations who spend millions on advertising to reach a youth market of an estimated 43 million schoolchildren "with spending power of over $108 billion per year and the power to influence parental spending" (Sides, 1996, p. 36).
Eager to attract young customers, companies such as General Mills and Campbell Soup provide free classroom materials that blatantly hawk their products. For instance, "General Mills has sent 8,000 teachers a science curriculum about volcanoes entitled 'Gushers: Wonders of the Earth,' which uses the company's fruit Gushers candy" (Shenk, 1995, p. 52). Similarly, the Washington Post reported recently that McDonald's gives elementary schools curriculum packages in which students learn how a McDonald's restaurant is run and, in case they miss the point about future jobs, how to apply for employment (Sanchez, 1998).

The Growing Disregard for Public Life

As market culture permeates the social order, it threatens to diminish the tension between market values and democratic values, such as justice; freedom; equality; respect for children; and the rights of citizens as equal, free human beings. Without such values, students are relegated to the role of economic calculating machines, and the growing disregard for public life is left unchecked.
History has been clear about the dangers of unbridled corporate power. Four hundred years of slavery, ongoing through unofficial segregation; the exploitation of child labor; the sanctioning of cruel working conditions in coal mines and sweatshops; and the destruction of the environment have all been fueled by the law of maximizing profits and minimizing costs. This is not to suggest that corporations are the enemy of democracy, but to highlight the centrality of a strong democratic civil society that limits the reach of corporate culture. John Dewey (1916) rightfully argued that democracy requires work, but that work is not synonymous with democracy.
Alex Molnar (1996b) is also right to warn educators that the market does not provide "guidance on matters of justice and fairness that are at the heart of a democratic civil society" (p. 17). The power of corporate culture, when left to its own devices, respects few boundaries and even fewer basic social needs, such as the need for uncontaminated food, decent health care, and safe forms of transportation. This was made clear, for example, in recent revelations about the failure of tobacco companies to reveal evidence about the addictive nature of nicotine. In direct violation of broader health considerations, these corporations effectively promoted the addiction of young smokers to increase sales and profits. Moreover, as multi-national companies increase their control over the circulation of information in the media, little countervailing discourse remains about how these corporations undermine the principles of justice and freedom that should be at the center of our most vital civic institutions. This is particularly true for the public schools, whose function, in part, is to teach the importance of critical dialogue, debate, and decision making in a participatory democracy (Barber, 1995).

Education for Democratic Life

Educators, families, and community members need to reinvigorate the language, social relations, and politics of schooling. We must analyze how power shapes knowledge, how teaching broader social values provides safeguards against turning citizenship skills into workplace-training skills, and how schooling can help students reconcile the seemingly opposing needs of freedom and solidarity. As educators, we need to examine alternative models of education that challenge the corporatization of public schools. For example, pioneering educators such as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, James Comer, the Rethinking Schools Collective, and other groups are working hard to link educational policies and classroom practices to expand the scope of freedom, justice, and democracy.
Education as a moral and political practice always presupposes a preparation for particular forms of social life, a particular vision of community, and a particular version of the future. Americans must address the problems of public schooling in the realms of values and politics, while holding firm to the possibilities of public education in strengthening the practice of active citizenship (Boyte, 1992). Schooling should enable students to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, the skills, and the ethical vocabulary necessary for what the philosopher and Czech president Vaclav Havel (1998) calls "the richest possible participation in public life" (p. 45). Havel's comments suggest that educators must defend schools as essential to the life of the nation because schools are one of the few public spaces left where students can learn about and engage in the experience of democracy.
In the face of corporate takeovers, ongoing commercialization of the curriculum, and growing interest in students as consumers rather than as citizens, educators must reassert the crucial importance of public education. At issue is providing students with the opportunity to recognize the dream of a substantive democracy, particularly the idea that as citizens they are "entitled to public services, decent housing, safety, security, support during hard times, and most importantly, some power over decision making" (Kelley, 1997, p. 146). Carol Ascher, Norm Fruchter, and Robert Berne capture the gravity of such a project in their claim that the urgency to solve the inequities in schooling is perhaps the most important reason for continuing the struggle to reform public education. For we will not survive as a republic nor move toward a genuine democracy unless we can narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, reduce our racial and ethnic divides, and create a deeper sense of community. (1996, p. 112)

Educators as Public Intellectuals

The corporatization of U.S. education reflects a crisis of vision regarding the meaning of democracy at a time when market cultures, market moralities, market mentalities [are] shattering com-munity, eroding civic society, [and] undermining the nurturing system for children. (West, 1994, p. 42) Yet such a crisis also represents a unique opportunity for educators to connect the purpose of education to the expansion of democratic practices in order to promote economic justice and cultural diversity as a matter of politics, power, and pedagogy. As educators, it is important to confront the march of corporate power by resurrecting a noble tradition, extending from Horace Mann to Martin Luther King Jr., in which education is affirmed as a political process that encourages people to identify themselves as more than consumers, and democracy as more than a spectacle of market culture.
But more is needed than defending public education as central to nourishing the proper balance between democratic public spheres and commercial power. Given the current assault on educators at all levels of schooling, educators must also struggle against the ongoing trend to reduce teachers to the role of technicians who simply implement prepackaged curriculums and standardized tests as part of the efficiency-based relations of market democracy and consumer pedagogy.
Democratic citizenship needs teachers who have the power and autonomy to function as intellectuals working under conditions that give them the time to produce curriculums, engage in dialogues with students, use the resources of surrounding communities, and participate in the organizational decisions that affect their work. One precondition for a vibrant democracy is fostering schools that are responsive to the teachers, students, and communities that they serve. In short, I want to argue that teachers should be defended as public intellectuals who provide an indispensable service to the nation.
Such an appeal cannot be made merely in the name of professionalism, but in terms of the civic duty that educators provide. Educators who work in our nation's schools represent the conscience of a society because they shape the conditions under which future generations learn about themselves and about their relations to others and to the world. The practice of teaching is also by its very nature moral and political, rather than simply technical. At best, such teaching engages students in the ethical and political dilemmas that animate our social landscape.

Renewing the Democratic Mission of Education

In the face of the growing corporatization of schools, educators should also organize to challenge commodified forms of learning in the public schools. This suggests producing and distributing resources that educate teachers and students to the dangers of a corporate ethos that treats schools as extensions of the marketplace and students as potential consumers. In addition to raising critical questions about advertising, educators might also consider addressing the long-standing tension between corporate culture and noncommercial values in order to contest the growing tendency to subordinate democratic values to market values. At the level of policy, public schools should ban advertising, merchandising, and commercial interests. And educators should establish a bill of rights identifying and outlining the range of noncommercial relations that can be used to mediate between the public schools and the business world.
If the forces of corporate culture are to be challenged, educators must enlist the help of diverse communities; local, state, and federal governments; and other political forces to ensure that public schools are adequately funded so that they will not have to rely on "corporate sponsorship and advertising revenues" (Consumer Union Education Services, 1998, p. 41).
How public schools educate youth for the future will determine the meaning and substance of democracy itself. Such a responsibility necessitates prioritizing democratic community, citizen rights, and the public good over market relations, narrow consumer demands, and corporate interests. Although such a challenge will be difficult in the coming era, educators must reclaim public schools as a public rather than a private good and view such a task as part of the struggle for democracy itself.

Applebome, P. (1996, January 31). Lure of the education market remains strong for business. The New York Times, pp. A1, A15.

Ascher, C., Fruchter, N., & Berne, R. (1996). Hard lessons: Public schools and privatization. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press.

Barber, B. (1995). The making of McWorld. New Perspectives Quarterly 12(4), 13–17.

Boyte, H. (1992, Fall). Citizenship education and the public world. The Civic Arts Review, 4–9.

Consumer Union Education Services. (1998). Captive kids: A report on commercial pressures on kids at school. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

Giroux, H. (1988). Schooling and the struggle for public life. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Grace, G. (1997). Politics, markets, and democratic schools: On the transformation of school leadership. In A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown, & A. S. Wells (Eds.), Education: Culture, economy, society (pp. 311–318). New York: Oxford University Press.

Havel, V. (1998, June 2). The state of the republic. The New York Review of Books, 42–46.

Kelley, R. (1997). Yo' mama's disfunktional: Fighting the culture wars in urban America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Molnar, A. (1996a). Giving kids the business: The commercialization of America's schools. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Molnar, A. (1996b). School reform: Will markets or democracy prevail? In Rethinking Schools (Ed.), Selling out our schools: Vouchers, markets, and the future of public education (p. 17). Milwaukee, WI: Author.

Pecora, N. (1998). The business of children's entertainment. New York: Guilford.

Sanchez, R. (1998, March 2). The billboarding of America's schools. Washington Post National Weekly Edition, p. 29.

Shenk, D. (1995, September). The pedagogy of pasta source. Harper's Magazine, 55–53.

Sides, P. (1996). Teaching students to be consumers. In Rethinking Schools (Ed.), Selling out our schools: Vouchers, markets, and the future of public education (p. 36). Milwaukee, WI: Author.

West, C. (1994). America's three-fold crisis. Tikkun 9(2), 41–44.

Wright, R. G. (1997). Selling words: Free speech in a commercial culture. New York: New York University Press.

Henry Giroux has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 198260.jpg
Whose Schools?
Go To Publication