Notes & Comments April 1999
On brand names in textbooks.
Our schools may have trouble teaching children to read, write, and calculate effectively, but they seem to be doing a fine job of equipping them for trips to the mall or McDonalds. According to a front-page story in the the March 21 issue of The New York Times, many state-funded math textbooks routinely feature “a wide array of brand-name consumer products, from Nike and Gatorade to Disneyland and Topps baseball cards, many of which appeared in illustrations as well.” As the story explained, “school districts are seen as prime targets by computer software publishers, fast-food chains, soft-drink bottlers and other corporations, which believe that brand loyalty begins at an early age.”
No doubt it does. And what better way to ensure loyalty than to bombard an audience with the names and images of a particular brand. In one sixth-grade math textbook published by McGraw-Hill, students will find a word problem in which “Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25.” Another problem pauses to inform them that “The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie,” before proceeding to the matter at hand: “The diameter of an Oreo cookie is 1.75 inches. Express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in simplest form.”
The McGraw-Hill textbook is intended to turn word problems into real-life situations to better teach the principles of sixth-grade math. It is by no means clear whether students can actually solve the problems tacked on to these commercials. But after a semester of sixth-grade math, they will clearly know all about Nike sneakers, Nabisco cookies, and McDonalds hamburgers. Apparently the publisher received no payments from the companies whose products were featured in the McGraw-Hill textbook. One of the book’s co-author’s said that products were touted simply to make the math problems more “relevant” to students. But parents are understandably outraged that textbooks have been co-opted as a new outlet for corporate advertising. (They ought to be outraged, too, by such cynical appeals to “relevance”—a term that, whenever it is used in an educational context, ought to be considered guilty until proven innocent.)
As might have been predicted, it turns out that the insinuation of advertising into textbooks is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the corporate effort to turn public schools into training grounds for consumers-to-be. According to an Op-Ed piece by Steven Manning in the Times on March 24, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have “turned some schools into virtual sales agents for their products. Districts across the country have signed multimillion-dollar ‘pouring rights’ contracts, which give a soft-drink company exclusive permission to distribute its products in schools.” Some schools even have sales quotas to meet in order to receive payments ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 per year.
Of course, this frenzy of hucksterism is taking place against the backdrop of a continued crisis in educational standards. More and more it seems, American schools are giving themselves up to a diet of PC social indoctrination abetted by blatant consumerism. Sixth-graders may know to use condoms after they take off their Nikes; exactly what else they know is a matter of conjecture. As Mr. Manning noted in his editorial, “unless more parents, teachers, and politicians start paying attention, consumerism may replace learning as the predominant value in American public education.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 8, on page 2
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