Detail of cover of Trevor Norris’s new book.
“How can the education system maintain its democratic function in the face of commercial forces?” Over the past few months, this quandary has been debated all across the province—from the legislature at Queen’s Park to high school faculty lounges. OISE professor Trevor Norris explores the larger dimensions of this hot button issue in his new book, Consuming Schools: Commercialism and The End Of Politics. To prepare for his book launch this Thursday at Hart House, Norris sat down with activist, editor, and Torontoist guest contributor Dave Meslin to chat about commercialism and culture-jamming in the classroom.
Dave Meslin: Advertisers are always trying to find new captive audiences. Just over the last decade, they have successfully maneuvered into new areas: in elevators, at the gas pump, above urinals, etc. It’s no surprise that ad companies would target schools, full of young trapped eyes and minds. Of all the intrusive ways that ads are creeping into our lives, why did you choose to focus specifically on schools?
Trevor Norris: I am not alone or the first to realize the importance of schools in the daily lives of students and the formation of their values and identity. A recent study in Canada discovered that 99% of references to school commercialism are in marketing and advertising magazines—advertisers certainly realize how important schools are.
Schools are sought after for the very reasons you identify in your question: Ads have expanded into more and more parts of our culture, and since schools are often less commercialized than these other places, they are increasingly desirable. They are the last unbranded environment, perhaps the most important battleground for the future.
However, schools are also one of the most important sites for the development of the values and beliefs of the next generation. This is the promise of schools: they hold tremendous potential to function as locations of resistance. Many educational theorists have emphasized how important education is to the promotion and preservation of democracy, most famously in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. In my book I argue that, instead of succumbing to commercialism and becoming incorporated into the vast and increasingly comprehensive system for the promotion of consumerism, schools are among the last sites for the liberatory potential of critical thinking to be harnessed and engaged.
Some would argue that students are already being pummeled by so many ads each day (on Facebook, on TV, even in video games). Does it really matter if they are exposed to the corporate world in schools too?
Your question raises the core issue of the difference between school and society: should schools simply reflect society, or be somewhat distinct? There is certainly plenty of violence, sex, drugs, and so forth in the larger culture. Yet there is significant effort put into protecting youth from being exposed to such things in schools.
Second, there is considerable legitimacy given to messages within the school environment. This is the reason that corporations want to be associated with schools.
Also, there is the overarching question about which standards we appeal to. Instead of using the standard of the hyper-commercialized larger culture as the standard for what amount of commercialism should be permitted in schools, perhaps we should reverse that order, i.e. use the currently comparatively limited amount of commercialism in schools as a model for the larger culture.
In your book, you talk about the “Production of need and relentless invention of new desires.” Some would argue that ads don’t create desires, but rather just inform consumers about the options available to them. What, if any, evidence supports the notion that the advertising industry creates desire?
That’s one of the main points of the book: that there has been a shift from the production of commodities to the production of images and the production of new desires.
Saying that marketers and corporations are simply passively responding to predetermined consumer needs is an effective strategy used to evade responsibility for the larger cultural impact of advertising. This is a way that advertisers can simply claim that they are powerless, passively responding to predetermined consumer demand, because they have no influence over individual values or the larger culture.
Economists claim that we are driven by rational self-interest and aim to maximize our individual utility. In this model, ads simply provide us with facts and objective information about the functions and physical features of products such that they could be directly compared with other products and their use measured against a specific and predetermined need. To some extent this is the way advertising worked in the early part of the twentieth century.
However, marketing today often endows commodities with abstract or so-called magical properties, symbolic meaning, and cultural significance. This shift has a far more profound impact on the inability of the consumer to differentiate between needs and desires. The aim is to promote new desires and replace needs with the inculcation of inadequacy and encouragement of endless desires. Markets for products don’t simply spring from the earth or fall from the heavens. They must be industrially manufactured.
It has been argued by some that advertising is just part of democracy and freedom of expression. But we know that when Adbusters successfully raised millions of dollars to put “anti-consumerist” ads on television, most cable companies (including CTV and ABC) simply said “no.” We also know that in a democracy, everyone is supposed to have an equal voice. But in the advertising world, those with the most money have the loudest voice. How do we balance the core principle of freedom of speech with the value of having a genuinely informed public, both in schools and in our public spaces?
Open and balanced communication is the cornerstone of a democracy. However, free and unconstrained consumer choice is held up to be the equivalent of democracy, and that it is undemocratic or anti-democratic to place any restrictions on consumers. Advertisers claim that regulations constitute censorship and violate their freedom of expression. Freedom to speech therefore means freedom to advertise. So when schools restrict advertising in the classroom they are apparently violating one of the most important tenants of democracy. I would argue that it is evidence of how deeply we have become incorporated into the commercial system and adopted consumer values—that we would not only take on the additional labour of becoming marketers but that we would think that democracy and diversity is promoted in the process.
This is the key function of critical work in the classroom: if the dominant communication system in our culture is going to prevent or refuse the transmission of alternative messages then schools have an even deeper responsibility to be sites for the critical engagement with consumerism.
You write that “consumerism undermines the critical task of education, reducing it to a process by which students become increasingly acquisitive yet decreasingly inquisitive.” You also talk about the “sterile and arid atmosphere” of the typical classroom, and how flashy marketing can easily distract. I liked your mention of “re-enchanting the classroom,” the idea of somehow making the education system itself more creative and engaging, so it can compete with clever corporate marketing. Do you consider that to be a realistic goal? Could the classroom ever be as hip or perhaps even as fun, as a good ad or video game?
I think one of the major issues with addressing consumerism is that it seems to have a monopoly on virtues such as fun, playfulness, creativity, and youthful rebellion. It is therefore important that critical movements concerned with education not be positioned as boring and puritanically moralizing.
That said, I don’t think that teachers ever can—or should—be as entertaining or stimulating as advertisements. In fact, many students today are already oversaturated and over-stimulated and are looking for something different. A key part of education is to debunk prevalent myths and assumptions. Students are usually pretty quick to realize that they are being misled and manipulated. So teachers don’t have to be equally entertaining, nor boring moralizers, but somewhere in between that can allow students to critically engage with consumerism.
As ad companies try harder and harder to get into our school systems, the opposition grows stronger as well. What can parents and concerned citizens do to get involved?
Students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders will often take on the “either/or position,” by which I mean that they will think that if they don’t accept funding there will be no school programs. Alternatively they may accept the argument from necessity: that funding is a necessity because this is the new “reality” of the world we live in.
However, it is important that we ask the most important questions about the aims of education in order that we not find ourselves in a funding crisis that would seem to necessitate increased commercial funding. In other words, part of the reason we are cornered into an either/or position is because of a lack of vision about the democratic function of education.
Regarding strategies for involvement, I am currently working to found a group called the Ontario Institute for School Commercialism Studies. [The goal] is to challenge prevalent complacency by calling for a more robust and dynamic democracy that is not overrun by commercial interests, so that we can in fact be a model democracy for others to strive towards. It is time to revive our vision of democracy and how we create it, because that kind of social action is much more deep and far reaching than passive consumerism.
Trevor Norris will launch his book with an onstage conversation with Trent University’s Gavin Fridell, on Thursday, February 24 at 6:00pm; Hart House (7 Hart House Circle, University of Toronto), FREE .