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Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics

reviewed by Guy B. Senese - July 27, 2012

coverTitle: Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics
Author(s): Trevor Norris
Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Toronto
ISBN: 1442611073, Pages: 256, Year: 2011
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GOT MILK? So reads a small sign on the big battleship grey double doors of a middle school lunchroom near here.  I made a quick inquiry and found that children in the school also got photographed wearing a “milk mustache” as part of the promotion.  The California Milk Processor Board may have purchased a piece of the stream of commercial promotion in the district, and this is a reminder of the important story that Trevor Norris tells in Consuming Schools.  Within, Norris describes the commercial tide washing in, higher and higher, to erode the academic platform of American and Canadian schools.   

Consuming Schools provides examples numerous and apt regarding the shift from school as commons to its role as ad center, and itself a customer of pre-packaged curricular and extracurricular experiences.  He cites closure of an environmental education center that saw 250,000 students between the 1940s and the 90s.  Norris uses interesting examples such as the Procter and Gamble subsidiary “Tremor,” which “has assembled a stealth sales force of teenagers….280,000 of them….to push products on friends and family.  ….a way to find out about cool products before others do.”  It’s hard not to think of tremors when I see young people walking automatically, texting feverishly, taking swills of an “energy drink” in between “sentences.” A frenetic world where public, corporate and academic narratives offer us, and students, a kaleidoscopic challenge to social and political consciousness.   GOT RED BULL?  

We read how privatization took an almost manic turn immediately post 9-11, with the nation directed away from a fear response by going out and shopping.  Bush’s edict “go shop” was not primarily a call to consumerism, but a way to show terrorists we are not afraid to go out in public.  However, that “going out” is tantamount to shopping is what’s interesting.  Out, simply AS shopping.  

In the early chapters Norris begins by laying out the case for commercial culture critically out of balance, with a cultural landscape increasingly saturated by points of sale.   He begins with an overview of the literature on consumerism.  Smith, Marx and Weber all emphasized the importance of commodity production, indeed, and in that time, raw materials were important.  What has changed is the FORM taken by commodities: the predigested food, pre-cooked, ready to eat and wear.  Our time is crowded with production and consumption, including digital production, which mystify the conditions of labor.

Into the school creeps Consumerism as a kind of extended dependence and co-existence.  Students are consumers of consumption, attentive to brand loyalty and status.  We are now far beyond the sandwich sign, with Logo saturation, ads running before us in thousands of public spaces, and kids (and adults) as Human billboards for brands.  These are the designer fabrics of consciousness.  I marvel at the boldness of this re-designation in every corner of public education, including higher education, where students are the object of consumption.  They are the commodity at the point of sale.  

After two extensive chapters, one considering the history and background of consumerism, and one on the current state of school consumerist saturation, Norris has a chapter on Hannah Arendt and one on Jean Baudrillard.  Each, respectively, considers the philosophic dimensions of human consciousness in a climate of hyper-consumerism.  These are provocative, if a bit out of narrative joint, particularly given these thinkers’ foundational philosophic differences.  However, the result is reasonably creative, and a positive risk.   These two thinkers are his focus, but I think Norris under-examines Marx’s potent term –fetish—and how it demonstrated the quasi-religious power of “the buy.”  Later emphasis on Arendt’s “homo economicus” is powerful.   Baudrillard’s analysis is privileged, but I believe his term—the “sign,” not nearly as strong.  Marx may have had a “productivist” bias, but he was no slouch on consumption, even at that early date.  Norris is wise to see modern liberalism as a political theory of appropriation. Separating you from your goods is a present participle, and the 20th century shifted us all from the production of goods, to the production of needs.

Next, Norris tracks how the accumulation of consumer goods is a distraction from the possibility of permanent wealth/property.  It is also the stimulant for the creation of wealth—other peoples’.  Hence, the creation of new “spaces” dedicated to consumption-Branding.  He provides numerous examples: for instance, the development and expansion of school service auxiliary companies like Chicago based “Field Trip Factory.”  A service company—which takes kids to visit major corporations and financial institutions, where they leave the trip with bags of company swag to bring back to the family.

Norris somewhat idealizes Public Education as a formerly de-commoditized public good, swept up by neo-liberal forces.  This is the school that cannot fulfill its “liberatory” public responsibilities.   What were those?  Here I believe he neglects the earlier generation of New Left and neo-progressive critique.  In this view, we remember that custodial school has always been the standard, with service to the division of labor. I wished Norris had gone deeper into the heart of the political economy, with more reference to what consumerism means beyond the middle class audience in school, the biggest targets he discusses.

Norris outlines the extended mystification of the public/private divide.  It was already mystified by the use of property taxes to fund schooling, without adequate alteration of the State school funding formula, to help offset the property Tax disparities. He notes the growth in marketing investment to kids, from 100 million to 15 billion, between 1983 and today.

The larger issue of over-production/under-consumption—again, Marxian categories, beckons.  These political/economic realities are quietly and quickly shifting.  Indeed, one shift that could use more emphasis here is the liquidity of living standards, most recently, the real estate and financial industry collapses.  Teachers tell me that ad budget cutbacks have reduced the return on investment for in school ads, which had their heyday in the late 90s.  In addition, pressure from environmental and health politics have changed the appetite for soft drink and junk food commodities in the schools.  These are cutbacks, not alterations of climate, and Norris is definitely on the right track here.  This is a carefully researched and persuasive overall treatment.  

For Norris’s Arendt, the salesperson is a bad teacher:  to succeed she magnifies the product’s virtues and minimizes or obscures its vices.  Critical thinking is not a friend of the salesperson qua seller.  The expansion of imagination must always be toward the sale.  The strengthening of critical faculties is a risky business, for these faculties, when free, are also free to explore the competing product, or idea, for its virtues.  Developing in you a critical capacity to critique my construction of your actual needs is not in my interest. Also, this develops a set of interests that are a distraction from the ones I developed to reinforce your dependence on, and desire for, what I sell.  

Baudrillard, the joker of postmodernism, is presented without much reference to totalitarian fatalism. Without updated analysis, this tempts neglect of recent social media politics.  Baudrillard welcomes the potential for numbness, and human automaticity, as part of a consumerist endgame.  However, there is not enough attention paid to parts of the world where the consumer information age is tolerated but does not overwhelm traditional associations.  The wild card of social media is underdeveloped here.  I share Norris’s gloom, but I think he misses some of the absurdity and humor in both Baudrillard and the human condition, including the march of the labor force affected by consumption and education.  Our inner Goth is further piqued by his hints at dystopia, where BOTH politics and consumption are redefined by technologies of brain surveillance, which, fully developed, make education, and his own book, along with lots of others, quaint.  

I think Norris neglects Dewey. His analysis of democratic consciousness is an effective alternative to the totalizing self-interest of commercialism.  Even the “progressive” tradition out of Rousseau, also for all its/his flaws, and expiration date, is in the ideal a powerful foundation for any critique of status accumulation at the expense of the construction of civil democratic faculties toward authentic freedom.

Consuming Schools is essentially a strong and responsible treatment of school consumerism with a cross disciplinary approach that will appeal to Foundations of Education specialists and general readers.  It has roots in both Canadian and American contexts.  I differ strongly with the subtitle of Consuming Schools, “Commercialism and the End of Politics.”  School politics has never been devoid of commerce.  

I liked this book, enjoyed reading it, and will recommend it. But like too many philosophers of education, Norris feels the need in his conclusion to avoid a prescription.  He ends with a whimper, almost apologizing for writing a conclusion, as if Baudrillard would strike him with lightning for daring to avoid “indeterminacy.”  He stands with Arendt in offering no program or plan following this critique. This is a philosophic book in the fine tradition of multi-disciplinary social foundations analysis. Norris uses many tools, from philosophy to history to journalistic investigation.  To draw conclusions from both his analyses and data would be no error.  Indeed, he ends with an Arendt quote warning against the triumph of the mundane.  This is misplaced, and undercuts Norris’ findings that public education is threatened not so much by the mundane, as by the fossilization of a public academic narrative, underwritten by the public and public law: not the end of politics, but the end of education.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 27, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16831, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:19:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Guy Senese
    Northern Arizona University
    E-mail Author
    GUY SENESE is professor in Social Foundations of Education at Northern Arizona University, Department of Educational Leadership. His books include: Simulation, Spectacle and the Ironies of Education Reform, and Throwing Voices: Five Autoethnographies on Postradical Education and the Fine Art of Misdirection. His research interests include Critical Theory, Philosophy of Education, and Native American Education Policy.
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