consuming schools

Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics

By Trevor Norris
University of Toronto Press, November 30, 2010, $27.95 paper

Interview between Dr. Gavin Fridell, Chair of the Department of Politics at Trent University, and Dr. Trevor Norris, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. This interview is a shortened version of the discussion that took place during the book launch of Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics in the Hart House Library on Thursday Feb 24, 2011.

Gavin Fridell: To begin with, the forward to your book is written by Benjamin Barber who talks about consumerism as “a new ethos of infantilization” as corporations corrupt children and “dumb down” adults. I wonder what you think of this idea of “infantilization”?

Trevor Norris: You’ve raised a good question about a deep paradox regarding consumerism. On the one hand it results in what Neil Postman calls “the end of childhood,” because it undermines innocence, confines play, etc. By exposing kids to violence, sex, materialism, etc. it forces them to grow up quick.

However, in contrast, regarding citizenship, consumerism relentlessly promotes infantile values and world views, such as instant gratification, easy commodified solutions rather than those requiring more sustained efforts, and so on. Infantalization is how consumerism compromises democracy because it turns citizens into children.

It is ironic that we don’t let people vote unless they are of a certain age, and yet most advertising promotes infantile identities! So the innocence of childhood is compromised by consumerism even as consumerism promotes infantility among adults.

GF: In the book, you talk about the productivist emphasis of classical political economy, and how it neglected the key role of consumption and consumerism in a capitalist society. Yet, with the new and growing emphasis in academia on “consumer society,” I wonder if we have swung things too much in the other direction?

TN: This is one of the more interesting developments of recent decades. We are only beginning to understand the causes and character of consumerism. This is in part because for many recent centuries the focus has been on production. However, my focus is on consumption not because production has become inherently less important, but rather because new sites of consumption have become sites of political resistance, because people increasingly identify as consumers more so than as workers. Today we engage in politics through consumption rather than production.

That said, perhaps there is too much of a dichotomy here. Perhaps instead we should be trying to find ways to link consumption back to production. The aim of advertising is to sever the links between what happens before and after consumption. By that I mean that consumption talks only about the moment of purchase and use and obscures what happened beforehand (production).

GF: I wonder if you can comment a bit on what you think about the relationship between consumerism and the left in Canada today. It seems that many people on the left’s position on consumerism has been either to roundly condemn it or use it as a political tool, such as ethical consumerism. In both cases, I wonder if the left ends up coming across as “preachy” and “puritanical”?

TN: You’ve raised a good point about the challenges faced in developing any critique of consumption. It is often the case the progressive politics is undermined by the use of moralizing, guilt, preachy, patronizing and puritanical attitudes towards others. This is something that leaves it open to accusations of elitism, and allows people to more readily identify with consumer values.

It is important that we not allow consumerism to have a monopoly on fun! This is what makes it so seductive. It’s the one part of life that is portrayed as fun, pleasurable, creative, etc. And who would want to be portrayed as critical of that! To be critical of that leaves one open to accusations of being a boring moralizer.

I think there are two ways around this. One is to emphasize that it is not entirely accurate to say that consumerism is about fun, pleasure etc., but also about overconsumption, debt, or that your overconsumption causes suffering for others, etc.

But we need to also find ways to make criticism creative, to show that it can be fun to be critical of consumerism, that it can be pleasurable to dissent. That living a lifestyle that is counter to the dominant consumer narrative can be potentially meaningful and satisfying.

GF: What would you say to those who 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?

TN: We may be inclined to accept the prevalence of commercialism in the larger culture as “reality,” the reality to which we must now adjust. It may then seem nostalgic or idealistic not to accept it as a given. But this is a constructed reality; it didn’t just happen.

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: so that they can associate themselves with school and benefit from the positive public perception. They can achieve far greater public recognition than simply advertising. Surveys indicate that people have more trust in schools and educators than almost any other institution or profession, and corporations are quick to try to associate themselves with them.

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: use the currently comparatively limited amount of commercialism in schools as a model for the larger culture?

Religion might be another interesting case study: few churches accept direct corporate sponsorship, advertising, etc. Why don’t we say: “look how great schools are.” They are one of the last institutions in our culture that is not completely overrun by commercialism. We need to protect them.

GF: I noticed that in the concluding chapter of your book, you eschew any grand statements on what a political blueprint for action to deal with the consuming of schools should look like. I wonder if I can put you on the spot: what do you think political action, in the here and now, should look like?

TN: This is a good question, because in the last chapter I present some views about theoretical work and philosophy more generally that informed the whole work and I think are important to take into consideration in addressing political issues. My argument is that in many cases theoretical investigation may be compromised if we are continually referring back to feasibility.

My concern is that such an approach would then feed back into the type of reflection that would happen in the first place. Much would be lost if we were to base the value of philosophical work on its feasibility or effectiveness or ease with which it can be put into practice.

Although I take this stance, I do investigate specific ways in which consumerism can be critically engaged. There are many ways consumerism can be a topic for analysis in the classroom in almost any subject area, for example through culture jamming in media literacy classes, through alternative economic theories in business and economics classes, quite easily in civics and politics classes, family studies, history of advertising, etc.

I am also a co-founder of an organization called the Ontario Institute Studies in School Commercialism, which is currently engaged with the Toronto District School Board regarding attempts to install TV screens in the halls of 70 public schools.

That said, corporations would not want to enter into commercial relations with schools if it seemed likely that they might be the objects of criticisms. In fact, they often try to prohibit such activities through things like non-disparagement clauses, etc. Criticism is also getting increasingly difficult as corporations construe work that is critical of consumerism as “hate speech.”

What is at stake in this debate is what kinds of messages will be communicated in the larger culture and in schools. Democracy, citizenship and the public realm will be determined by this question.

Trevor Norris is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. His areas of research are contemporary political philosophy, philosophy of education, democratic theory, and critiques of neoliberalism. He is the author of Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics, (University of Toronto Press: 2011) and several articles and book chapters on the origins and nature of consumerism and its impact on politics and education.

Gavin Fridell is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Politics at Trent University and a research associate at the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University. He is the author of Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice (University of Toronto Press: 2007) and several articles and book chapters on fair trade, food politics, international development and global political economy.