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Collateral Damage. Corporatizing Public School: A Threat to Democracy

reviewed by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson - 2002

coverTitle: Collateral Damage. Corporatizing Public School: A Threat to Democracy
Author(s): Kenneth J. Saltman
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742501027 , Pages: 125, Year: 2000
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Kenneth Saltman’s important book arrives not a moment too soon as cash strapped public schools contemplate heightened commercialism in order to raise the money necessary to offer, in some cases, basic education and in other instances, "frills" such as athletic programs and cultural enrichments. The author’s trenchant critique of corporatization of public education makes the case that such commercialism threatens democracy. Commercialism reflects neoliberal shifts from understanding education as a public good to considering it a private good. Saltzman argues that neoliberal privatization, the transfer of public institutions into private hands, is fundamentally at odds with democracy, the development of a critical citizenry, and institutions that foster social justice and equality.

Collateral Damage’s title, as Saltman notes in Chapter 4, has several meanings: indirect damage, as in Timothy McVeigh’s depiction of his murder of children in Oklahoma City; kinship damage, as in the notion that we all will be affected by commercialization because of our common interests in the survival and health of democratic public education; and capital damage, as in the consequences of market-driven school reforms led by captains of industry seeking to profit from the privatization of public education. The title’s multiple meanings succinctly summarize the author’s conclusions regarding the process and outcomes of corporatization and commercialization of public education.

Collateral Damage is valuable not only for the well-reasoned political position the author takes, but also for the wealth of information it provides about commercialism in American public education. Saltman situates his work clearly in the tradition of other cultural, social, and educational critics like Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, Michael Apple, and Alex Molnar. The author draws heavily from these scholars for the substantive and theoretical foundations of his book. However, the book is marred by the disjointed nature of the essays that comprise the book. I want to recommend both that the book be read by every school board member, teacher, parent, and citizen in the nation and that the author revise the book into a more coherent, holistic tome which will advance his arguments more effectively.

The first chapter, "Educational Privatization and the Assault on Public Schools," is the book’s best. It frames the subsequent chapters with a powerful analysis of privatization and commercialism in education. Each of the next four chapters engages an aspect of market-oriented school reforms or practices. Chapter 2, "Nothing Left to Choose: Education, Democracy, and School Choice," presents educational privatization as attempts to transfer public schools to private interests. In it Saltman draws heavily from Jeffrey Henig and other choice critics to slay the dragon of private school choice as a viable alternative to public education. Importantly, he also examines competing visions of choice, especially those potentially compatible with democracy.

In Chapter 3, the author focuses directly upon commercialism in the public schools, including the notorious Coke and Pepsi wars made famous by school administrators who suspended students who wore Pepsi T-shirts on Coke day. The author’s point of view regarding commercialism is aptly summarized in a footnote, "Genuine democracy does not subordinate the public good to the private profit of a fiscal elite (p. 74, n. 16)."

In Chapter 4, "Collateral Damage," Saltman juxtaposes the growing militarization of urban nonwhite schools with the principles and practices of the private incarceration industry which increasingly serves to control the marginalized segments of the nonwhite population of the U.S. In the final substantive chapter, an essay provocatively entitled "Pedagogues, Pedophiles, and Other Lovers: The Constructed Crisis of the Predatory Teacher," Saltman uses the case of Mary Kay Le Tourneau (the teacher who fell in love with her 14 year old student and with whom she has had two children) to discuss the social construction of school crisis and school failure as the fault of individual students and individual teachers.

The book’s conclusion is a brief (3 pages) essay that attempts to bring together the disparate themes presented in the preceding five chapters. Saltman concludes by raising a number of queries: What kind of citizens do we want to make? What kind of democracy do we want to have? He believes our struggles over public education reflect struggles over the meaning of democracy. Saltman fears that ultimately, commercialization in schools will lead to the ideologically bankrupt conflation wherein democracy becomes nothing more than a synonym for capitalism, and where citizens are nothing more than producing and consuming subjects devoid of any critical consciousness.

Several serious weaknesses undermine the power of his argument and the compelling data he amasses to make it. Each of chapters could stand on its own as if its previous incarnation was as a journal article or a chapter in an edited book. None is tied directly to the other, nor do the chapters build systematically to sustain Saltman’s argument. And several chapters are themselves disjointed essays that contain multiple topics only loosely related to each other. Another weakness is that the author himself does not offer new data in any chapter. While his drawing together of others’ scholarly and journalistic accounts of commercialism is very useful, Saltman’s book would be stronger if he had contributed new research. A final weakness in the book is the author’s occasional unsubstantiated claim that requires citations and, at a minimum, a more scholarly treatment of the claim. In his chapter on commercialism, for example, Saltman writes that the news content of Channel One "has been characterized as laughable, antiquated, uncritical, and shallow (p. 59)." Saltman does not reference this characterization. While I agree with this view, there is a body of scholarship on Channel One, some of which supports the author and some of which challenges his claim. Readers need to have access to this debate or the author risks having his book marginalized as advocacy rather than scholarship. And this would be unfortunate given the importance of the topic and the power of Saltman’s theoretical analysis.

Collateral Damage’s strengths overcome its weaknesses. Saltman writes in a lively, accessible way that overcomes the book’s organizational flaws. Saltman treats his readers to several bon mots that linger long after one reads the passage. His ability to use theory to frame data is especially laudable. The book’s most important strengths are the evidence the author amasses and the power of his analytic critique of commericalism. Given the largely uncritical public (as opposed to scholarly) discourse about privatization and commercialism in public education, Saltman’s book is an especially useful and timely contribution.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 79-98
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10770, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 12:30:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Roslyn Mickelson
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    ROSLYN ARLIN MICKELSON is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Mickelson is investigating the equity effects of market-oriented reforms on students, particularly those from low-income and ethnic minority families. She is the author of ‘‘Subverting Swann: The Effects of First- and Second-Generation Segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’’ (AERJ, 38: 215–252, 2001) and Children on the Streets of the Americas: Globalization, Homelessness, and Education in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba (Routledge, 2000).
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