Schools as Consumerist Gulags

The Chicago Tribune reported the other day that a local 12-year old won a car for perfect school attendance in the past year. Aside from the absurdity of giving a car to someone not old enough to get into a PG-13 movie, there’s also the insanity of rewarding students for simply showing up, not only with cars, but also with iPods, computers, and other game show prizes. But it’s also the logical extension of an increasingly commercialized school culture, with students as captives programmed to be better consumers and contestants, not better or more educated citizens.

Chris Whittle began the process in earnest with Channel One, the program that gave schools new media equipment in exchange for forcing their students to watch commercial-laden “news” programs at the beginning of each day. The schools, starved for the equipment, thankfully agreed, figuring that a few minutes of Lucky Charms wouldn’t hurt. But it turned out to be the camel’s nose under the tent: Now we have schools (including colleges, making the line of continuity complete) with exclusive contracts with Pepsi or Coke, scoreboards funded by companies, and big ads and electronic boards in hallways extolling the “virtues” of this or that product.

More insidiously, some textbooks have begun using Oreos and other products as part of math and other exercises. Students, surrounded constantly by importunities to buy outside of school, are now constantly bombarded with similar messages in a space that should be safe from mind control, the kind that knows you have to “reach ’em young” to create brand loyalty. As a result, no matter what schools are actually teaching, they’ve also become accomplices in the drive to turn students into pure consumers and celebratory narcissists.

So what’s wrong with giving a kid, even a 12-year old, a car (or anything else for that matter) for loving school enough to come every single day? Isn’t that what we want kids to do? Well, yes and no. In the first place, CPS statistics show that school attendance is already at 91%, so how is this prize going to make a difference? Secondly, although the young lady is a good student, isn’t it likely she went to school on several days when she wasn’t feeling well, thereby putting others at risk? How do we know if she didn’t send other kids home with a cough, destroying their dreams of a car for themselves? Third, if a reward must be awarded, shouldn’t it fit the effort, just as the punishment should fit the crime? A gift certificate, maybe, or, if you want to spend the money anyway, what about something that doesn’t depreciate the minute it’s possessed, like, oh, a college scholarship fund? Not glamorous, and definitely not what consumers want to see.

Finally and perhaps most destructive, though, is the way that a prize like this ends up chipping away at the behavior it’s designed to reward. In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn makes a persuasive case against rewards far less odious than a car for perfect attendance. He writes, “A reward, by definition, is a desired object or event made conditional on having fulfilled some criterion: only if you do this will you get that.” So there is an element of coercion even as the reward is presented. Furthermore, rewards can evolve into an inversion of their intent: Students end up saying, “I won’t come to school regularly UNLESS I get a car/vacation/ iPod” and so on. The actual value of coming to school and doing well is overshadowed by the prize and what should be most important–the trip–becomes just an impediment to getting the prize.

Kohn writes that “Rewards are not actually solutions at all; they are gimmicks, shortcuts, quick fixes that mask problems and ignore reasons. They never look below the surface.” Later, he writes, “Our objective is not really to succeed at the task at all (in the sense of doing it well); it is to succeed at obtaining the reward.” So giving a kid a car or a vacation or an iPod doesn’t really have any short or long term value except to glorify consumption at the expense of education. Going to school becomes simply the obstacle to a reward, not a reward in itself. Turning them into contestants won’t make them good students or good citizens; it will simply test their ingenuity as they try to figure out how to get the most reward for the least effort. (This is not a criticism of students; it’s something we all have the capacity for.) Summarizing his chapter “The Trouble with Carrots,” Kohn writes: “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.”

After a lifetime of imprisonment in a system that is no longer truly publicly supported but instead is “sponsored” by corporate interests, can we wonder why our children come out of the system focused on easy acquisition and endless consumption instead of rational choice and intelligent participation? When even colleges and universities have adopted “branding” as a way to make themselves heard, we can’t be too surprised that traditional avenues of civic participation and community loyalty have fallen by the wayside. When we’re taught to love a car or a shampoo more than another person, is it any wonder that those released from their long indoctrination have trouble making friends in person or creating fulfilling lives? Unless they have something to buy or consume, there’s no other reason for being, is there?

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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