When capitalism collides with curriculum

I sympathize with those from other countries and other belief systems who worry that our capitalistic Western culture is having a negative impact on their youth. I occasionally feel that way myself.

When my grade schoolers get on the public school bus in the mornings, the radio is tuned to an AM station that plays "pop" and "rap" that some music store owners wouldn't sell to children without parental consent. I know how offensive the lyrics are because my children now request that station in our car. The talk show content is even worse.

On the return bus ride on a Friday, a holiday, or after a particularly successful field trip, the bus driver often hands out free candy - usually dyed a deep color that stains lips and tongues. After lengthy negotiations, my kids now refuse blue.

Once at school, they're asked to turn in General Mills boxtops, Campbell's soup labels, or flip-top can tabs, so the school can "earn" educational freebies. Since most of these products are genetically engineered; high in sodium, fat, or sugar; or full of artificial flavorings and colorings; or all of the above, our family tends not to buy them. When the children were very young, they couldn't understand why we didn't want to help our school. Now, they're beginning to grasp some of the issues involved. Usually around Christmas, our PTA wants to use the kids to sell candy, wrapping paper, candles, or jewelry, so the school can qualify for prizes. The classroom with the most points might get a Domino's pizza. The Girl Scouts sell cookies; another school sells magazine subscriptions.

At the new high school gymnasium, the big soda companies were competing to donate basketball backboards with their logos emblazoned on them. Likewise, they offered to put soda machines in the halls. The school board turned them down, amid controversy.

In the homework packets that come back from school, Scholastic Books markets books and computer games to the kids, in the name of reading. Their monthly ads spur discussions at home of why we prefer to support the local bookstores. Nevertheless, my son purchased, with his own hard-earned money, a computer game that features high-speed auto racers "winning" by escaping the cops. We negotiate computer (and TV) time, versus time spent outdoors - or reading.

The fourth-graders went to an art museum in the next town. Instead of sending boxed lunches, parents were asked to pay for lunch at McDonald's. A couple of courageous 9-year-olds brown-bagged it, but most bought the junk food. The school's message was that since it would be so difficult for the kids to behave at a stuffy museum, they'd be rewarded with lunch at McDonald's. (Everyone knows how painful art can be, compared with the joys of junk food.) Meanwhile, their health classes teach nutrition.

In a flier sent with my electric bill this winter, the power company boasts of its sponsorship of a skiing program for Maine's fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders. Their (my?) generosity is being funneled through a nonprofit organization led by the marketing directors from the ski areas. More than 53,000 school kids will spend up to half a school day each to hear about free ski-lift tickets.

Why? Purportedly, it's all in the name of physical fitness. (What with all this sitting around, listening to commercial radio, eating blue candy and pizza, and playing computer games, we've raised a nation of General Mills potato-buds.) In our school, however, there was already an all-inclusive fourth-grade, four- lesson, learn-to-ski program, with free lift tickets at the local slopes - no strings attached. The power company program, on the other hand, extends only to those with a fully paying adult to accompany every two kids. File this sales gimmick under Math for Marketers, not Phys. Ed.

Here are my "Cliff Notes" for skirting capitalism at school. Pick your battles. Choose your battlefield - home or school? Recognize the opportunity to discuss values. And keep a sense of humor. Mostly, we quietly opt out and try to let our children know why. Occasionally we raise a ruckus. Public schools and public school buses are still worth it. As for capitalism, sometimes I have my doubts.

Martha White is a freelance writer and editor.

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