Corporations in the Classroom
You are an animal activist, and you’ve just been invited to speak about animal agriculture and diet for an assembly program at a nearby high school. You collect a bunch of materials, including a fake 5-pound slab of fat, a couple of bread crates to serve as the cage on which barefoot students will stand to simulate the life of an egg-laying hen, excerpts from the video Diet for a New America, and a variety of critical thinking exercises to demonstrate the problems of a meat-based diet. Your presentation is exciting, thought-provoking, and funny.
Afterwards, you are surrounded by students and teachers who are collecting the handouts you’ve brought. Your sign-up sheet is full of names. One week later, you receive 100 thank-you letters from students, and 35 of them tell you that after your presentation they decided to become vegetarian. You think about all those hours you’ve spent handing out leaflets in front of McDonald’s, or writing to your legislators about larger veal crates, and you realize that you’ve never done anything as effective at helping animals in the same amount of time as offering this single school presentation. You’re hooked. You’ve become a humane educator.
The Summit for the Animals has designated 2000 as the Year of the Humane Child, but before we can promote such a concept, we need a vision and a commitment. What are the values of the humane child? What does the world around this child look like? How is this child educated and raised at home, at school, and within the larger culture? And, most importantly, what can those of us who want to create a compassionate world do to reach children with a message of compassion?
These questions are fundamental to the humane movement because without a commitment to youth, there is no hope of creating a humane and compassionate world. Unless we raise children with values that differ significantly from those that dominate our culture and school systems, we cannot expect to create a world in which all beings and the Earth they share are treated with respect, care, and justice. Reaching youth is the work of prevention. We do not have the luxury to wait for another generation (raised on burgers, Cokes, television, and materialism) to grow up. Whether we recognize it or not, we are engaged in a struggle for children’s minds, hearts, and souls, and yet the humane movement is composed of many people who choose not to have children, who never become involved in a PTA, and who generally work for change through media campaigns, protests, and legislation rather than humane education. Many animal protection organizations (with the notable exception of local humane societies that teach elementary students about “responsible pet care”) have neglected humane education almost entirely, focusing their efforts on adults. While this is slowly changing, we need to do much more to reach mainstream youth.
Those who support the continued use of animals — whether as targets for hunters, carcasses for dissection, tools for research, objects for entertainment, or as food and clothing — know better than to neglect youth. These people and institutions are in the schools through hunter education programs and free speakers on biomedical research issues. Those who support free-market capitalism and the consumer culture also know better than to neglect their young markets. They are taking over the food services, distributing curricular materials, and advertising their products throughout the school. They have a host of eager companies ready and willing to accept their dollars and produce the materials required to turn young people into loyal, brand-name consumers.
The public school system, television, and most media are becoming less and less independent. Larger and larger multinational corporations are purchasing the ability to reach all of us, young and old alike, with a message that ultimately promotes the sale of products — whether they are sweatshop-produced, leather athletic shoes, fast-food hamburgers, or animal-tested cosmetics. Many people are surprised to learn that the same corporations that advertise products on television are also producing lesson plans for children. For example, in response to public concern about junk food, the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association have produced a “FREE educational program focusing on math, social science, and language arts skills.” The program, called “Count Your Chips,” includes such activities as researching people’s favorite chip flavors and writing a “humorous family snack story.” Some animal activists might not find this particular example so distressing since potato chips are not animal products, but imagine if the activity were “Number Your Nuggets,” sponsored by the American Poultry Association. In fact, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council has already produced classroom materials, as have the California Beef Council, the American Egg Board, and the National Livestock and Meat Board. The latter has produced a number of classroom materials including a “science” unit that teaches, among other things, that being short is a result of eating too little meat and implies shortness is bad.
Corporations are literally taking over classrooms. Each day millions of secondary school students are required to watch Channel One, a 12-minute “news” broadcast owned by K-III Communications (a major shareholder in RJR Nabisco, a tobacco conglomerate, and owner of the Weekly Reader and Lifetime Learning Systems, both of which produce classroom materials). K-III Communications sells advertising time on Channel One to Nike, Mountain Dew, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and other companies on the premise that these corporations have a captive audience of teenagers for their ads. Schools that accept the Channel One deal (which exchanges free equipment and the “news” program for a guaranteed student audience) are not allowed to edit out the commercials. Essentially, public schools are forcing students to watch commercials that promote the special interests of advertisers. While these commercials may be similar to ads the students might see on television anyway, a fast-food hamburger advertised in school implies that the burger has inherent goodness. After all, if the school didn’t think it was good, it wouldn’t be shown in class!
When these students head to the cafeteria they may see a poster on the cafeteria door that reads, “The Healthy School Lunch Program.” This poster shows photos of trim athletes and pictures of foods, including a cheeseburger, a hot dog, a pepperoni pizza, and whole milk. It has been produced and distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose mandate includes promoting meat and dairy products, especially whole milk products. The USDA, through the school lunch program, uses the nation’s schools as a dumping ground for the whole milk products it purchases from dairy farmers in order to keep milk prices stable. Since the constant overproduction of milk drives prices down in the marketplace, the USDA steps in to help the agriculture industry. In fact, 20 percent of the foods schools serve are USDA commodities, the majority of which are butter, cheddar cheese, ground beef, lunch meat, ham, and eggs.
Recently, the Walt Disney Company began distributing posters for school cafeterias in which popular Lion King characters advertise hamburgers and other unhealthy, high-fat animal foods. Worse, many schools have eliminated the traditional school lunch program in favor of privatized food services offered by McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, or other franchises. Why would schools give up the subsidized national school lunch program in favor of a corporate cafeteria? The answer is money. Many schools lose a lot of money on their lunch program because students reject the cafeteria fare and skip out for fast food instead. Some schools have decided it’s simply more cost-effective to invite the fast-food giants to take over the cafeteria. Of course, for low-income students who qualified for free or reduced-cost meals, the switch to privatized lunch no longer affords them the same choices as their more affluent peers.
Before and after their barrage of high-fat, sodium-laden foods and food propaganda, students sit in classes where overworked teachers and underfunded schools may rely on lessons produced with industry dollars for the sole (but hidden) purpose of promoting corporate products or viewpoints. According to Consumers Union, 20 million students use corporate-sponsored teaching materials annually. The following are examples of materials available to schools across the United States:
- The National Rifle Association’s Eddie the Eagle mascot teaches gun safety as part of its programs promoting youth hunting.
- Mobil Oil distributes lesson plans on the North American Free Trade Agreement that portray NAFTA as a great idea and not detrimental to laws protecting animals, workers, and the environment.
- Exxon’s classroom video titled Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill teaches students that the infamous Valdez spill wasn’t really harmful to the natural habitat of Prince William Sound.
- Kraft foods sells a $12 teaching unit that includes a film strip whose script claims that process cheese is “economical, wholesome, and versatile.”
- Procter & Gamble’s Decision Earth “environmental education” materials teach that clear-cutting forests benefits wildlife by creating new kinds of habitat, and downplay the effects of such environmentally damaging practices as mining, waste incineration, and the use of nonbiodegradable disposable diapers.
- McDonald’s sells teachers an “Environmental Action Pack,” while Burger King sends local volunteers to classrooms through its “Adopt-A-School” program. Meanwhile, Oscar Mayer’s “Making Food Safe” program teaches children that “all food is made of chemicals” and instructs them about the “role of processing in our food supply.” In its discussion of fat, Oscar Mayer’s program limits its comments to stating, “Fats supply essential fatty acids, help the body use other nutrients, and supply energy.”
- Scholastic — which has achieved a reputation for excellence in classroom publication — now markets itself to companies, aggressively urging businesspeople to utilize its services as “the only publishing pipeline covering the entire pre-K to 12 grade marketplace….The classroom offers marketers a virtually non-competitive advertising arena.” Scholastic’s clients include Coca-Cola Foods, S. C. Johnson Wax, M&M/Mars, Procter & Gamble, OXY 10, and Warner Brothers.
What are the chances that critical thinking questions about overconsumption of resources, endangered species, animal testing, sweatshop labor, materialism, factory farming, or a host of other issues will be discussed in schools when the adjuncts to the standard curricula (which itself does not address these concerns) are corporate and special interest materials designed to promote the sale of products? Students are barely exposed to viewpoints that differ from the corporate norm because these “alternative” views have so few champions in the schools. As David Korten writes in his book When Corporations Rule the World, “We are ruled by an oppressive market, not an oppressive state.” An oppressive market, however, is just as deadly to the Earth, to animals, and to people as a political dictatorship or state-controlled regime. Without the ability to think critically, to learn honest environmental or humane lessons, or to be free from a constant barrage of product “need-creation,” young people will not be able to make informed, compassionate, sustainable, or humane choices. They, like all of us, will simply be too brainwashed to consider any alternative ideas — if those ideas are even available to them.
It is not just corporations that have the funds to produce expensive classroom materials. The humane movement is also competing with organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) and other biomedical groups that actively promote vivisection and dissection. The AMA has put together an impressive resource kit titled “Medical Progress: A Miracle at Risk.” The kit (which includes a slide show and video) and training course (which is offered periodically throughout the country) is designed to train doctors, scientists, and lab personnel to teach about the necessity of vivisection and the importance of getting involved in promoting animal research. Like the humane movement, the AMA depends upon the grassroots interest of its constituents to promote its point of view; animal groups also have such “people power,” but only if advocates are willing to learn how to teach and communicate humane issues effectively.
The struggle for a compassionate world in general, and humane education for young people in particular, can only be won by addressing some of these problems. We must work for a democracy in which our voices can actually make a difference and in which our personal choices are fundamental to change. Reaching young people with knowledge and empowering them to make positive and compassionate lifestyle choices is essential to creating this world. And yet, while corporations invade the classroom, we in the humane movement are mostly absent.
Humane education is growing, and more and more activists are becoming educators. Universities are slowly but surely introducing concepts such as humane studies into their philosophy, sociology, and education departments; however, as a movement we have yet to invest ourselves in young people. We neglect humane education at our peril, and at the peril of the Earth and all species. For some people,humane education will not be their chosen path, but for many of us, and for our movement in general, humane education can and must become part of our vision and our action, and in so doing, we will not only bring about a year of the humane child, but also the era of a humane world.
Naming 2000 as the Year of the Humane Child is the first step, but what matters most is what we do during this year, and in the years to follow.