Education, or Advertisement?

When artists depict the future, we should take the time to listen. What if they’re warning us of something that could be avoided?

“Brawndo! It’s got what plants crave!”

This slogan for the popular sports drink ‘Brawndo’ is the mantra of citizens in Mike Judge’s 2006 film ‘Idiocracy.’ It’s information everyone has memorized, word for word, ready to trump anyone who would dare to question their precious ‘Thirst Mutilator!’ And because they believe so absolutely in the claim, they can’t understand why their plants won’t grow when they stop watering them altogether, instead feeding them only Brawndo – since, of course, it’s got what plants crave.

The film depicts a society so degraded in educational norms, and so smitten by emboldened advertisement, that its members passively accept the most powerful and obvious ideas thrust upon them. The words are so loud and the font is so bold; how could it be a lie?

Education was replaced by advertisement. No one needed the slightest botanical leanings, since everyone knew that Brawndo was all that plants need. The ad had taught them this; the ad had made it clear.

What does it matter to us? We needn’t worry; it’s all comedy or science fiction. It’s just a joke.

Yet every now and then, black comedy becomes reality.

In a recent piece, DeSmog Canada documented a new role the oil and gas industry will play in the development of primary and secondary school curriculum: “The province of Alberta has recently released a development plan for public schools that enlists Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada in the creation of future Kindergarten to grade three curriculum. Oil giant Cenovus will partner in developing curriculum for grades four to 12."

Big oil in the classroom. You can already imagine the slogan: “Oil! It’s got what societies need!” Are children learning to think, or are they being sold a product?

And while the place of industry in the classroom is clearly contested, there is a more fundamental issue at play here: Big Oil or not, why are we entrusting the development of childhood educational curriculum to non-experts?

Speaking on the issue, NDP Education Critic Deron Bilous argues that, in drafting the curriculum, the ministry of education should “[…] remove any partners that are not experts in childhood education. Somehow, I don’t think that oil and gas companies have the necessary qualifications.” Further, Bilous goes on to ask, why it is that “parents and teachers are being pushed aside to make room for oil and gas companies? I certainly can’t even begin to rationalize these decisions, or why the minister would undermine the value of our education system.”

The answer seems to be found in that old abysmal gap between policy-makers and practitioners. Why is anyone without educational expertise drafting educational policy?

The question of how to educate is profoundly complex, and an area of study in its own right. Not just anyone can teach, and even fewer can teach the teachers. When inexpert executives are given policy-making powers, they aren’t just inconsequentially out of their element; they are making consequential decisions without the qualifications to do so. Lions lead by donkeys.

The actual question of who decides upon curriculum is nothing new: even the role and qualifications of teachers in this process is a contested matter. And who is to say that the curriculum handed down to those teachers is the best material for the students in the class?

Educational experts, in many cases current and former teachers, inform schoolroom policy throughout the country – a cursory search of provincial education ministries’ websites reveals this.

But the influence of these experts may fade if they are forced to compete with corporations for a seat at the table. What is the voice of a teacher next to the dollar-strength and political influence of an oil corporation?

And where, in this scenario, are students to learn the value of critical thinking? Of challenging what has come before to make room for something better?

In Ontario the “government is putting a new policy into force this fall that will focus on career planning for students from kindergarten to Grade 12” in an effort to keep students on a straight path to the workplace.  

In describing the problem, Kelly Pedro for the London Free Press reports that young students aren’t getting enough career guidance at an early age, leading to uncertainty when entering university.

She writes, “With less amount of time to think about career options or ask questions, some students have taken an extra year of high school, entered university when college would have been a better path, or changed majors as their world opens up.”

Let that sink in. That they ‘changed majors as their world opens up,’ is described as the problem.

Clearly the overarching role of education is not to inspire, to open minds, or to pursue learning; it is to funnel children into the productivity machine, even at the expense of intelligence.

This becomes particularly troubling when the entire educational process is turned into a corporate endeavour.

Corporations exercising influence on curriculum could very easily make self-serving use of such practices. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine why they’d be there otherwise. They could very well funnel children into their own factories.

Education becomes advertisement: come work for us!

Are we to imagine a future in which children are placed on a pathway to the oil patch from Kindergarten on? Or is that future already upon us?

The child’s trajectory will be said to reflect his or her ‘personal interests,’ but can that future be considered free if there was no discernable alternative?

The possibility for change is ruled out from the start; career planning for students will see to that. But the oil industry’s booming voice at the drafting table does not turn their claims into the truth; students should be free to follow their interests beyond a predetermined work-path. 

Changing majors when your world opens up is the same thing as using your critical powers. It is realizing that people change, and interests change, and that the world changes, and there are far more expansive realms of knowledge beyond a single marketable skill.

We do have one thing going for us: we’ve been warned. We have the comedy and the science fiction; we know what to expect. It’s in artist’s renderings of the possible future that we see what very well could happen to the world around us. It’s our choice to listen to the warnings.

And there’s one more thing we have on our side: every open mind so highly sought after, because in the final analysis, it is the children themselves who have to buy what the curriculum is selling.

Image Credit: Bill Erickson via Flickr

David Tracey holds a BA from The University of Western Ontario and an MA and MPhil from the University of…

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