Learning To Be Consumers

July 8, 2008 at 3:29 pm 2 comments

This weekend I rented a couple of videos from the library, and one of them was a documentary called Captive Audience by the Media Education Foundation. It was interesting – but I had some serious qualms with it as well.

The movie talked about how, as a result of slashing funds to schools by Reagan/Bush/etc., the schools were in a serious need of resources that they couldn’t get. So, once corporations started giving them irresistible deals for advertising and exclusive selling rights in return for school funds, who were they to say no? It also discussed how corporations were producing textbooks featuring their products as learning tools, essentially making learning one great big advertisement. And it went on to described how in the schools’ rush to make these deals with corporations, they were agreeing to contracts that essentially made the schools dependent on the corporations, their products, and their ads – and if the schools failed to meet sale quotas, these schools would be in debt to the corporations. Captive Audience also put a lot of blame on “tax-payers” for refusing higher taxes, thus refusing schools more funds and then allowing the corporations to swoop in as the saviors.

I’ve got to say, while this is a scary situation indeed, I don’t think schools weren’t teaching students to be good consumers already. For instance, at one point in the film a young student said:

There’s a big difference when you’re just watching TV at home, because you know that what you see on TV and what you see when you’re out of school – you shouldn’t always believe it, and you should have a filter on. But when you’re in school during a day of learning, you’re supposed to really be paying attention and trying to absorb it and you’re supposed to take it at face value. Like, if your teacher tells you something, you’re supposed to believe it – because that’s how you don’t fail classes.

This sort of mindset – which is entirely encouraged in many schools – teaches students to blindly follow and accept the authoritative voice. Now, that’s just not teaching critical thinking. On top of that, most of the “authoritative voice” in our society is produced by large corporations that control the media and the information that flows from them, that have a strangle hold over the government, and that fund “scientific” studies and help decide the results.

Additionally, the movie entirely skipped two major aspects: how the teacher-student dichotomy prepares students for the worker-boss dichotomy (a major part of consumer culture) and how standardized tests (and tests in general) have prepared students for a consumer life-style. When students are continually forced into a situation where the teacher is the Authority, and they must blindly accept the work put forth by this authority, they are then being trained for a life of having a Boss that orders them around. Following that, they stop becoming free-thinkers (because someone else knows what’s best for them and makes the decisions for them all the time) and half the job of the corporations and advertisers are already done for them – to break down the audience with their advertisements until they believe that they need the specific product or until they develop some blind “brand loyalty.” After all, don’t almost all corporate advertisements display their product as essential? And, of course, with the constant blitz of advertisements that barrage most students’ lives that tell them how essential the Super Cheesy Snack Attack Pack* is to their being cool (and don’t worry mom, it’s nutritious too!), who are they anymore to resist this authoritative voice? (Note: I’m not saying this is the fault of teachers, but the system that they are stuck within).

With tests, and especially with the advent of such rigorous standardized testing, students are learning two things: 1) again, to follow and pay attention to what the authoritative voice says (because otherwise they would fail the test and be punished), and 2) to be one homogeneous culture. This second part is especially important to corporations, which love standardize tests. How could they ever reach great seas of audiences if they were all thinking different thoughts, having different world perspectives, and wanting different things? With the rigors of increased tests and standardized testing (masked as “higher standards”), students are being prepared for corporations and advertisements to think the same thoughts about the world – thus, advertisements can be uniform and the same, reaching the same folks with the same message, and corporations receive a vast arsenal of trained consumers prepared to buy what they are told they need.

Anyway, this is a relatively skimpy post on a fairly huge topic. But, overall, Captive Audience was a good documentary that displayed how teaching students to be consumers has moved from a subtle practice to a blatant onslaught. Additionally, some good further reading on this topic is the book Fast Food Nation.

*This is a fake product… as far as I know.

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Entry filed under: General Free Schooling, Learning, Related To Free Schooling, Teaching. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lydia  |  July 8, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Following that, they stop becoming free-thinkers (because someone else knows what’s best for them and makes the decisions for them all the time) and half the job of the corporations and advertisers are already done for them

    that’s a really great point. this was really well written, brian, this is a really huge and interesting topic!

    Reply
  • 2. Grace  |  July 9, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Hey Brian,

    This is great!

    I just finished reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and this article reminded me of one of the points she made in the book. She was talking about the religious leaders in Iran, and how all of the little restrictions they enforced daily were basically adding up to one big distraction for the people. The small, everyday things – form of dress, application of makeup, etc. – were taking more time, energy, and thought because people were so often punished for little signs of rebellion. In turn, because people were concentrating on these little things, they had no energy to think about the major freedoms that were being taken from them and even less energy to rebel in any meaningful way.

    School can be like this too, if not quite so extreme in the United States (usually). I attended high school for a little while, and one of the big reasons I left was because I missed my down-time. I missed having time where I could just sit and think, and process the choices I was making and actually wonder why I was making these choices.

    The point of school always seemed to be “getting into college”, instead of “what are we actually learning now?” and this frustrated me to no end. Everyone was being herded in the same direction, the standardized testing thing was huge (is still huge) and people were taught to believe that the rest of their lives depended on how well they performed on a test. I found myself getting nervous and sick over my performance on a test I didn’t even care about. Then my dad said to me: Anytime now, the sun is going to explode and there will be nothing left of the Earth; and when the extraterrestrials are cruising through our galaxy, I’d bet my life they won’t be think ‘Hmm, why did that girl only get a 500 on the math portion of the SAT’. I mean really, what an insignificant thing to wrap your whole mind around 24/7 for four years, and this is what people are learning. I actually recently had a kid say to me (completely seriously): Well, the SAT basically determines the rest of my life. It’s really important that I do well.

    It’s a screwed up situation and I’m glad I got out of it, but at the same time I learned a lot about institutions and about society while I was in school. I also came to the realization that there are some amazing teachers who are so constrained by “standards” they can’t teach all they have to offer, or who choose to work within the system so they can enlighten some of the people stuck in it. It’s really too often a thankless job, that can be amazingly frustrating if you’re really trying to help people.

    Anyway, I guess that’s end of my rant. Your post was excellent, and it made feel like I had to reply.

    Reply

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