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What Should Be Taught About Consumer Education in the Schools?


by Alfred T. Falk, Jessie V. Coales & David R. Craig - 1940

A Symposium.

. . . . . by Alfred T. Falk

Director, Bureau of Research and Education, Advertising Federation of America


AS AN OBSERVER NOT ACTUALLY engaged in consumer education, I have the impression that current ideas as to what such education should include are in a state of bewildering confusion. Perhaps the viewpoint of a representative of a business organization cannot add much of value to those ideas. But sometimes those who are deeply engrossed in a professional problem can clarify their own views a little by considering the observations of a freshly arrived outsider who has tried to follow their discussion.


In attempting to set a framework for intelligent comment, I am confused at the very outset by the wording of the subject under discussion. Of course, this wording is not new and I do not blame the editors of this journal for it. What confuses is that the subject appears to deal with the training of teachers rather than the educating of consumers. It seems to me that the student who is not preparing to become a teacher need not be taught about consumer education at all nor, for that matter, about any other kind of education.


After my quibble on the word "about," I wish to voice a minority protest against that term—"consumer education." I think the invention of this term is largely responsible for the existing confusion of ideas about the whole subject. Literally, it means a field of education so broad that it takes in a good portion of what is being taught under many other names. Some educators give it that broad meaning, insisting that consumer education should comprise practically everything in the way of teaching that will help the individual to lead a better and happier life as a consumer. Of course, there is no objection to such an interpretation so long as there is no attempt to consolidate a lot of purloined educational hors d'oeuvres into a single course under the label of consumer education.


The consumer needs some training in arithmetic for the solution of many of his daily problems; he needs an understanding of civics and government in order to be an intelligent consumer-voter; he needs an appreciation of culture and the fine arts in order to obtain the finest satisfactions from the spending of his income. These are only a few branches of the broad teaching program required of the schools to fill the diverse educational needs of the well-prepared consumer,


It would seem a bit ridiculous to put all or even part of such general subjects into a special new omnibus course called consumer education. Yet I have the definite impression that something akin to this is being advocated in some quarters. It is to be hoped that the general confusion about this whole subject will simmer down before anything so disruptive is attempted on a general scale. Call this new program consumer education if that is necessary, but do not let it mushroom into an unwieldy hodge-podge that is bound to hurt the rest of the school curriculum.


THERE IS A DEFINITE PLACE IN THE SCHOOLS FOR NEW kinds of instruction specifically devoted to improving the functioning of the individual as a consumer. But it is not necessary to disrupt the whole curriculum in providing for such instruction. Some enthusiasts seem to regard consumer education as a complete new program revolutionizing many former aims, of education. It is often referred to as a sort of ideology, the champions of which are participating in a crusade. This attitude is surely not very helpful to the cause of well-balanced education.


In deciding what new kinds of instruction should be added to existing curricula for the purpose of consumer education, the logical first step is to determine objectives. It is interesting to read discussions on this point by leading educators in the field. At the National Conference on Consumer Education, held at Stephens College last Spring, one of the most prominent educators present stated the objective this way:


“The one problem of consumer education, t think is this larger one—all phases can be seen in this larger sense.  How can we convince the American people that they have this abundance within their grasp if they can take steps to starting up the economic system and markedly raise the money-income of our people.”1


The problem put by this professor is indeed a real problem-but is this the problem of consumer education? If it is, then we shall certainly have to take in H a great deal of territory. Before we do so, let us first decide whether it is a consumer function to start up the economic system and raise the money-income of our people, as the professor indicated. It seems to me that these are not consumer functions.


If the word "consumer" means anything at all, it certainly must refer to an individual as a purely functional classification, applying to a particular individual only in respect to those activities by which he fills the economic function of a consumer. Most consumers are also producers when they are at work the there can therefore be no hard and fast class of individuals oiled consumers. Consequently the objectives of consumer education as such must lie in the dm of preparing individuals for effective performance of their consumer functions alone. However arable other educational objectives may be, they have nothing to do with any branch of instruction properly called consumer education.


In a round-table discussion on what to teach high-tool students, held in connection with the conferee on consumer education already referred to, there med to be, according to the published report, "a tendency to narrow the field of consumer education buying situations. Such consumer problems of a material nature as taxes and housing and care of the needy were not discussed at all."2 Since these lat-topics were not brought up, it may be assumed it they were not considered as belonging in the field of consumer education. It is significant that the writer of this report thought it essential to mention; point. One might ask, by what stretch of the imagination could taxes, housing, and care of the needy be included in a study of consumer functions.  These topics may be studied under economics and sociology with the aid of textbooks and instructors specializing in those fields. Surely a consumer education teacher could not handle them as well.


At the same conference there was also a round table what to teach college students and here the report gives us an entirely different view. This discussion, accidentally, referred to courses in "economics of consumption" rather than "consumer education."  The former, one would suppose, is a narrower field than the latter. However, the report of the meeting this:


"A summary of the group discussion as to the main purpose of a college course in economics of consumption indicates that most of those actively teaching have several purposes. These include among other objectives that of developing business and community leadership, influencing legislation, building a philosophy and way of living, and evolving what was described as consumer cosciousness.”3


This is a rather breath-taking program.  These objectives, it is to be noted, are for a particular course and not for a general program of consumer education more or less scattered through the curriculum.  Furthermore, the course bears the title of economics, a particular kind of economics.


The most fantastic of these objectives—"influencing legislation"—must surely be rejected as a legitimate objective of any course in a publicly supported institution.  The other named objectives are at least questionable so far as inclusion in a course in economics of consumption is concerned.  But the report tells us: "It may be concluded that those now teaching such courses economics of consumption have a composite purpose, the spearhead of which is to develop consumer (community) and business leadership."


With the development of leadership as a spearhead purpose, followed by the objectives of influencing legislation, building a philosophy, and evolving consumer consciousness, we may be pardoned for wondering what economics of consumption really is.  And what is this "consumer consciousness" which it purposes to evolve?  It sounds too much like class consciousness, which I am sure is foreign to every legitimate educational purpose in this country.  By analogy, one might conclude that to evolve consumer consciousness means to promote antagonism and to develop the feeling that the usual relation between consumer and producer is that of victim and exploiter.  Indeed, this actually appears to be the attitude taken in some of the recent and revised texts in the field.  I cannot believe that any large numbers of teachers subscribe to such an attitude or such a purpose for courses in economics of consumption or in the broader field of consumer education.


Even if the net facts about the nation's market place should be unfavorable to the continuation of any existing arrangements, the impartial teaching of such facts should alone be sufficient purpose for any educational effort.  Whether knowledge and understanding of those facts is to result in economic or political changes is a question, which it is not the function of educators to influence, at least not in the publicly supported institutions of a democracy.  The emphasis should always be on unbiased teaching and impartial selection of material so as to present a really truthful picture of the facts bearing on a particular issue.  As I see the purpose of consumer education, a list of subjects somewhat like the following should cover the obvious needs: 1. Consumer purchasing, a. Family budgeting, 3. Consumer goods standards, 4. Economics of consumption, 5. Market practices. If the broader meaning of the term consumer education is accepted, the remainder of the program belongs in other parts of the school curriculum, where the subjects are designed to educate whole individuals, not merely the consumer side of us.


. . . . by Jessie V. Coales

Department of Home Education, School of Education, New York University


THE CONSUMER MOVEMENT, WHICH has developed during the past decade, has been responsible for a widespread interest on the part of educators throughout the country in what has been called "consumer education."  Today activities intended to educate families and individuals to be better consumers are carried on at various levels in the schools and are engaging the attention of several subject matter groups.  Diversity of interests motivating the program and the rapidity with which it is developing have resulted in much confusion as to what properly is the scope of a program for consumer education.


A discussion of what shall be included in a program for consumer education in the schools must of necessity be couched in general terms. Like all educational programs, the program for educating consumers must be fitted to the needs of the group for which it is intended. Since each situation is different, a prescribed plan, outlined and delimited, cannot be set up. Therefore, this discussion suggests a general program and deals briefly with the question of whether such a program properly lies within the province of the schools.


CONSUMER EDUCATION IS THAT EDUCATION WHICH IS related to the specific interests and needs of consumers. Broadly stated, its aim is to improve living by improving one of the fields of living, namely, consumption. A comprehensive program for improving consumption involves, first, the formulation of values. This formulation of values includes the development subjectively of scales of preferences or ratings of wants on the part of families and individuals, which guide them in consuming. Secondly, consumer education involves developing techniques and skills and imparting facts which aid consumers in gratifying their wants, whatever they are, most economically by helping them to get the most for their money and to use goods to maximize satisfactions. Obviously the program dealing with values is the more important because it is values sought which affect the quality of consumption. Techniques, skills and knowledge of facts are tools used in attaining values sought.


Before either of the above areas of consumer education can be affected, individuals and families must become consumer-minded. Otherwise they are not conscious of a need to be educated in this field. Therefore, the development of a consumer attitude or viewpoint is one of the first objectives of a program for consumer education. This involves developing a consciousness on the part of individuals and families of their interests as consumers apart from their interests as producers. It means that they must see themselves not only as business executives and managers, wage earners, professional and clerical workers, and homemakers but also as consumers. To do so, they must develop a consciousness of consumers' problems, and acquire an understanding of why these problems exist and an appreciation of how their welfare may be improved by efforts to solve these problems. Becoming consumer-minded also involves acquiring a sense of responsibility for improv­ing the situation of consumers, that is, a desire to do something about it, both as individual consumers and families.


When families and individuals have become conscious of themselves as consumers and the need for promoting their interests as such, the way is opened for helping them develop values, which maximize welfare. Because time and money are limited, consumers must make choices in the use of these resources. The kinds of choices made in their use determine in a large part an individual's or family's welfare. The aim of consumer education in this area of the field is to improve standards for choice, since these standards serve as guiding principles in the use of time and money.


Improving standards for choice cannot be done by laying down rules and issuing statements of what should or should not be. It cannot be done by arbitrarily stating that this is good and, therefore, we must have it or that this is bad and we must avoid it. Instead, the values sought or the wants themselves must be changed or improved. Only then are genuine changes made in standards. To effect such real changes consumers must become conscious of their standards for choice and must learn to evaluate them in terms of satisfactions sought and acquired. Nutrition and health education, and education which develops sources of aesthetic values, imparts social values, and the like would, therefore, be included in such a program.


The techniques, skills, and facts serving as means of gratifying wants most effectively, which should be included in a program for consumer education, are very diverse in character. Consumers should possess an understanding and knowledge of the way our economic system operates in order that they may be able to appraise the system and know how to improve it. They must possess standards for appraising the system and knowledge of where consumers' interests lie. Thus they must know the kinds of arrangements and policies which are advantageous and those which are disadvantageous to them as consumers. They must understand the way in which their activities hinder or promote the proper functioning of the economic system.

Dissemination of information regarding distribution of money income would also seem to be within the province of consumer education since the present distribution greatly affect’s consumer’s problems. For the same reason consumers should be informed also regarding community and other facilities providing commodities and services which add to real income but which do not require the direct use of money. They should have knowledge of the existence of these facilities and know how to consume or use them for maximum benefit.


The techniques and skills involved in money management and financial planning are especially important in getting the most for the money available.  Consumers should, therefore, be familiar with techniques and devices facilitating: (1) wise use of financial credit, (2) budgeting of money income, (3) record keeping as a part of intelligent budgeting, (4) acquiring and caring for savings,  (5) provision against risk through insurance, and (6) control and care of money.


Education to promote the efficient purchase of commodities and services in the market is also part of the program for consumer education.  Unfortunately some educators have limited their concept of consumer education to this phase of the program.  They have associated consumer education with education foe consumer’s s buyers only.  Although an important part of a comprehensive program, skillful teaching I this phase alone will not in the long run fundamentally improve consumption to any great extent.  Efficient purchasing will be effective in improving consumption only if consumers have already learned to evaluate their standards in terms of values most desired and to plan carefully the use of their money.


To buy efficiently, consumers must possess knowledge of qualities essential in the different kinds of commodities and services intended for particular purposes.  They must be able to evaluate guides such as advertising, trade names, informative terms, ratings, standards, specifications, and the like which they may use in identifying and comparing particular qualities of goods in the market.  Knowledge of the kinds of goods in the market, where they are available, and prices charged is also necessary for efficient buying.


Not only must consumers have a body of specific information about particular commodities and services, but they must also possess a fund of general information concerning difficulties involved in making intelligent purchases and knowledge which enables them to appraise the market and to know what to do to improve it.  They must also appreciate the importance of appraising their own buying practices and habits and strive to develop practices which make buying more efficient than at present.


Maximizing satisfactions derived from the use of commodities and services is also an important phase of consumer education. This includes information regarding the care of commodities and how to make good serve their purposes best.  It means knowledge of how to enjoy goods once they are in the consumer’s possession.


As outlined above, the program for developing intelligent and efficient consumers is a huge task.  If the task is to be effectively carried out all educational resources, the schools, families, and any other agencies which have an educational contribution to make, must be called upon.


QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN RAISED, PARTICULARLY BY business interests, as to whether or not certain phases of the program for consumer education should be undertaken by the schools, that is, whether or not these educational activities are within the province of the schools. Efforts have been made to hamper the free functioning of education by attempting to control, by various means, the contents of the consumer education program. These activities have in a large part centered about devices intended to mold values, influence the scales of preferences of consumers, and direct their purchases to particular commodities and services.


Business has in the past through advertising and other devices taken an important part in directing and controlling the choices of consumers. It is the interest of educators in developing critical judgment regarding these devices, which is apparently causing distress among some business groups. Many businessmen, those with foresight, understand that a large body of well-informed and articulate consumers will in the long run be of immeasurable benefit to business. Others, however, prefer to see in the movement a threat to their immediate vested interests, which must somehow be met. They feel the movement must not be allowed to gain too much headway or at least it must be kept under their control.


Educators on their part have raised questions as to whether or not such an important phase of the program of educating consumers should be in the hands of those who feel they have much to lose if the program is not kept under their control. It may be granted that the rapidity with which consumers have become the concern of educators and the desire of some educators to take part in the program before they had a fundamental understanding of it have led to some unwise and prejudicial teaching. Certainly educators as a whole do not condone such teaching. Moreover, it should not be made the excuse for the seizure of the reins by groups whose unprejudiced concern for the consumer may be questioned.


There seems to he no valid reason why all phases of the program for consumer education as outlined above should not be undertaken by the schools. Do we not generally put faith in our schools and look toward them as a major means of achieving the democratic way of life? Have they not been called the "bulwark of democracy"? Why should not education to improve such an extremely important phase of living as consumption be entrusted to them? Indeed, it seems that not only should the schools consider educating consumers within their rightful province but that they should consider it their duty, too largely neglected in the past. If American consumers are to be assured that their interests are the controlling factors motivating consumer education the schools must assume and retain leadership for the program.


. . . . by David R. Craig

President, American Retail Federation


ANY REQUEST FOR A DISCUSSION OF consumer education from the business viewpoint is loaded with tacit assumptions. For example, it takes for granted that a businessman has a right to a separate point of view, or that his view will be different from that of a consumer or an educator, or that (even in progressive schools) it is possible to educate children as children most of the time and as prospective consumers the rest of the time.


Now, what little I know of the philosophy of progressive education tells me that all three of these assumptions are wrong—unless in addition you assume a fundamental conflict between business and living. I find no such conflict. On the contrary, except when the businessman is driven into a corner by intemperate attacks on some of his weaknesses and must lash out in self-defense, his viewpoint is likely to be the same as that of any other citizen interested in education. And whether we like it or not, we cannot persuade our children to be mathematicians or writers or historians for forty minutes at a time, and then step out of character completely in order to be trained as consumers.


If they are being educated to understand their world in the hope that they will get along well in it, it is fair to tell them a secret at the outset: it is a single world.   Living and making a living are one.


Nevertheless, there is a reasonable basis for a request that the business viewpoint be set forth separately. When business groups here and there are found demanding that one textbook or another be thrown out of the schools because of what it says about the business system, and when the dispute about the textbooks grows acrimonious, then clearly it is time to examine the issue as scientifically as possible. If businessmen question the right of teachers to teach what they think best, they must have a viewpoint of their own and one, which is different from the viewpoint of the teachers.  What is their viewpoint?


I stand in a curious position as interpreter, for businessmen usually think of me as an educator and educators usually think of me as a businessman. Thus my license to suggest the outline of the business viewpoint in an educational magazine derives from the fact that I am an outsider in both groups, and possibly on that account a disinterested and impartial observer.  By the same token, however, these observations must be taken as personal rather than representative.


INSOFAR AS CONSUMER EDUCTION IS INTENDED TO MAKE for more proficiency in purchasing consumers' goods, the main effort can be steered in two directions.


First, it can be directed toward a better understanding of the characteristics of consumers' goods. When "manufacture" meant making things by hand, the average consumer knew as much about merchandise as the man who made it. She had the feel of it and was a fairly good judge of its value. But nowadays the engineers have, taken over the design and construction of goods, and in a sense the average consumer is at their mercy, for the processes of manufacture are remote from her experience. She can rely on what the manufacturer and the distributor tell her about values or else, if her experience with the goods is unsatisfactory, she can try other goods and other manufacturers and distributors until she is satisfied. She must remain relatively helpless until she learns which manufacturer and which distributor can be depended upon.


With this in mind, consumer education can discuss values of basic and ordinary commodities. An increasing amount of technical information is available.  In this field, it will be worthwhile to present individual case studies of separate items in the hope of arriving at a way of evaluating the values of these items in particular and other items in general. And before passing to the second direction in which consumer education might travel, it is worth pointing out how the emphasis ought to be placed. It can be placed on use.


In October the Congress passed a law requiring that after next July, woolen goods must be labeled to show whether they are made of virgin wool, reworked wool or re-used wool, and in what proportions. The law ignores the fact that after the garment has been manufactured, nobody in the world, not even the scientific laboratories, can tell the difference. It takes for granted that virgin wool is better, warmer, more durable or for some other reason more valuable, and it accuses those who include re-worked wool or reused wool in their products of presenting a shoddy product less valuable than it should be. Of course, as any technician will proclaim, this is not necessarily so, for the warmth and durability of the woolen product depends much more on the length of fiber and on construction than it does on the virginity of the original material. If the Congress had been mindful of the consumer, it would have insisted on performance standards instead of standards of origin, which cannot be determined. All the consumer wants or needs to know is what the product will do for her, or what care she must take in using it. If there are to be technical courses, they should stress use.


It may not be presumptuous or naive to add that when the consumer has found a manufacturer or a distributor whose output is satisfactory, she ought to count this finding as a valuable asset and continue to buy his products. There are a large number of businessmen who realize that their long-run prosperity depends on precisely this type of satisfaction.


At the same time emphasis ought to be placed on merchandise rather than on discounts or special count, for, particularly at the retail level, competition is exceedingly keen. Many items can be bought without paying the full-advertised price. But no course in consumer education is complete unless it studies the consumer-cost of the discount.


I SAID THAT IN A SENSE THE CONSUMER IS AT THE MERCY of the engineers. In another sense the engineers and the manufacturers are at the mercy of the consumer. This brings us to the second direction in which consumer education can be steered.


The second effort can attempt a realistic analysis of the system of manufacturing and distribution which brings the goods from the producer to the consumer and which, incidentally, is often responsible for awakening the consumer's desire to possess the goods. Here again the case method would be useful in demonstrating some of the problems, which are confronted manufacturers and distributors.  Taking the same example, it should be possible to trace the wool from Australia or Texas or Wyoming to the finished over-in a retail store, to notice the various competitive situations in which this wool finds itself from time to, and to discuss the meaning of each competitive situation to the consumer at the end of the line.  Actually, of course, the consumer is at the beginning of the line.  It is in this sense that the consumer dominates the whole economic stream.   Since she is still r no pressure and can buy or reject individual she casts her vote in our economic democracy, her vote is a signal for retailers to use in deciding they in turn will order from manufacturers.


ALTHOUGH SHE IS FREE TO VOTE AS SHE CHOOSES, THE consumer is, nevertheless, subject to artful persuasion by all who seek a vote of confidence in their products. Most of the criticism of business has come those who find exaggeration and misrepresentation the propaganda of business to obtain consumer confidence.


There are two things to be said about exaggeration misrepresentation. First, there is plenty of it. is, not all advertising is tainted. There is plenty because we work in a competitive system in which survival has never depended on modesty. Flagrant are punishable by various laws of Congress and states, and these laws have greatly improved the s and the honesty of advertising during the past decades. An equal and possibly greater improve: has been brought about by thoughtful pioneers among businessmen, who have seen the writing on the wall and have understood that unless the public believes what they say, the public will turn against them.


In the long run businessmen hope for a temperate and reasonable approach to their weaknesses. They, too, are trying to correct them. They do not mind being reprimanded even by the schools from which their customers of tomorrow are getting their attitudes of today, but they also ask for approval of the part of their complicated system which works to the advantage of business and consumers alike. They know that this complicated system will stand criticism and that it needs improvement, but they wish recognition for the improvements already made. A realistic presentation, based on the long view, will completely satisfy the businessman.


There should be some emphasis also on the conflict between prices to the consumer and the wage levels and wage costs of the manufacturer. In many lines of consumers' goods, wage costs are more than half the total manufacturing expense, and low prices to consumers may mean sweatshop conditions in the factory. Most consumers, however, are also producers and eventually must be asked to reconcile the difference between these two interests.


FINALLY A WORD ABOUT WASTES IN MANUFACTURING and distribution. We hear that the costs are too high, and so they are. If you know what people ought to want, advertising such as we have today is completely wasteful from any totalitarian point of view that decides whether its public is to be allowed to have more than one blue serge suit or whether its people may eat even cabbage on Tuesday. With freedom there is no such restriction and people are allowed to want whatever they want. Even with freedom, the system of American business contains many unnecessarily high manufacturing and distributive costs. Yet in spite of many statistical reports it is impossible to evaluate these wastes except from the point of view of individual kinds of business. From the point of view of social policy it is possible to make out a good case to show that a large part of the wastes (viewed from the totalitarian standpoint) are responsible for the fact that some of our standards of living are high and that our educational level is much higher than in any other country in the world.


Should it be necessary for a businessman to become belligerent in the defense of a program of consumer education in the schools that stresses a reasonable approach like this?






Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 7 Number 56, 1940, p. 50-55
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14131, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:23:19 AM

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