Schools should not promote commercialism


The Christmas season comes even earlier to the shops in Ireland than it does in the US, according to Prof Alex Molnar, the leading American expert on commercialism in public education, writes Breda O'Brien. He was speaking last weekend in Trinity College Dublin.

It appears that just as we have caught up with and passed out our American cousins when it comes to commercialism at Christmas, the Irish education system is being infiltrated at all levels by commercial interests just as it is in the US. Prof Molnar and the other speakers at the conference have this idea that is beginning to look positively quaint - that education should not be a marketplace commodity, but involve independent thinking and the ability positively to criticise the culture.

Prof Molnar's interest was sparked 20 years ago when he was at an education conference to speak about curriculum planning. There were the usual commercial stalls selling everything from classroom furniture to educational materials, but he was nonplussed to discover McDonalds was giving away materials claiming to contain valuable nutritional information for classroom use.

It turned out to be propaganda about how McDonalds food fitted neatly into a healthy diet. He asked his university students if they had ever come across anything so blatant. Within a short time, he had two big boxes full of similar materials.

Prof Molnar commented that the architecture of a period tells you a lot about the era's priorities. The Middle Ages were dominated by churches, cathedrals and abbeys. Post-revolution USA produced magnificent political buildings. Today we have trade towers and shopping malls, monuments to the new deity - the marketplace.

We are given to understand that the marketplace exists outside time and space. The priests of the marketplace - the economists - tell us that any human intervention with this deity will anger it, and therefore it must be propitiated with sacrifices. We are made to feel dissatisfied and unhappy with every aspect of our lives, but not to worry; if we are deficient, we can be made sufficient by the perfect purchase. The buzz doesn't last long, so the cycle begins again.

This cycle of consumption is financed by credit. We use credit to buy things we don't need but are persuaded we want, with money we don't have, for the benefit and profit of people we don't know.

The same is true in Ireland. Our public services are in rag order, but people react to the possibility of higher taxes as if you had proposed infection with the Ebola virus. Yet we are happy to have our spending power fuelled by massive levels of debt that amount to paying punitive taxes on credit used for things that have no collective or public benefit.

To make a system like this work, you have to train your consumers early. That is why corporations, even the ones who have no product to sell directly to kids, such as car manufacturers, are panting to get into classrooms. It helps to build brand loyalty, but even more importantly, children influence up to 80 per cent of the household's purchases.

Joseph Fogarty, a primary school principal and chairperson of the Campaign for Commercial-free Education, cites evidence to show that the corporate rush into classrooms is just as powerful in Ireland. Schools across the country were plastered with posters declaring "Renault are the safest cars you can drive", when they distributed road safety materials in conjunction with Road Safety Authority (RSA). If Renault was so concerned about road safety, why not just donate the money to the RSA?

Four years ago, the Gaelic footballs and bibs that were sent to 92 per cent of Irish primary schools bore the McDonald's logo. It takes the pressure off the State, but it is a scandal that a fast-food chain is sponsoring PE equipment and branding our children, while our Government continues disastrously to underfund PE.

Why do schools co-operate? A survey of 320 school principals carried out in October and November by the Irish Primary Principals' Network provides a simple answer. Lack of funding forces schools into collecting vouchers for computers, and collecting tokens for Gaelic footballs. By the way, according to Fogarty, a "free" computer from Tesco requires a school community to spend a quarter of a million euro in Tesco over 10 weeks. The small schools, or ones in disadvantaged areas, lose out on even these pathetic schemes.

There is no code of practice regarding the activities of commercial interests in school. The principals who were surveyed want one. Not surprising, given that some of them have been offered between 20 and 30 separate unsolicited commercial promotions throughout the year. But what hope of a code when at least two Government Ministers, including Minister for Education Mary Hanafin, have been involved in launching commercial schemes aimed at getting children to persuade parents to buy particular products or newspapers?

Marketing to kids in school is insidious enough, but as Paddy Healy of the TUI and Kathleen Lynch of UCD point out, third-level education in Ireland is becoming increasingly subservient to the needs of the marketplace, threatening any research that does not have an immediate commercial pay-off, and indeed, even academic freedom and integrity.

Even in so-called public education, there is more and more pressure within universities to operate like a business, to the extent that a recent report on higher pay in the public service suggested performance-related bonuses be introduced into third-level education, as if it were some kind of widget-producing factory that could be encouraged to increase output. Yet historically, it is the "useless" research that has often led to a breakthrough, sometimes decades later. Ben Franklin could not have known the outcome of his experiments with kites and lightning would one day transform the world. If he were dependent on a research grant, it might never have happened, and if it did, his inventions and breakthroughs would not have remained unpatented as he always insisted.

Decades of underfunding have led to a situation where schools feel forced to take part in commercial schemes, and universities feel under threat if they are not focusing primarily on feeding the economy. The sad thing is that education is supposed to be about helping people to think, not promoting the idea that the best things in life can be bought.