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Calculating the area of an Oreo equals corporate influence

What are we to think of the marriage - well, at least the serious dating - between our schools and big-time corporations in today's America?

This issue arose for me personally this month when my youngest child, a fifth-grader in the public schools in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, brought home what his school had given him as a reward for an achievement.

It was a "Coke card" printed up by the Coca Cola Company in conjunction with a variety of other businesses: "Free Coke if you buy this submarine sandwich" - that kind of thing.

There's a lot of this sort of corporate exposure in American schools. Companies provide the schools with materials - free and ready to go - and the schools provide the companies with access to our children: Pepsi logos on the school scoreboard, or vending machines in the halls, or textbook math problems about finding the area of an Oreo cookie.

Is there anything wrong with this? Many don't think so. On the plus side, there's the financial benefit to beleaguered educational budgets. And, for this benefit, proponents ask, what's the cost?

I'd say there's a big cost: Real education is fundamentally different from advertising, and we diminish our schools and hurt our children if we allow that distinction to be blurred.

A real teacher teaches for the benefit of her students, for their improvement. Do you think that the people who are paying to put their corporate logos in front of students are doing so for the sake of our children?

As Ernest Calkin, a giant of the advertising world, said in the 1920s, "The happiness of the reader should be the real topic of every advertisement. The happiness of the advertiser should be carefully camouflaged."

A real teacher treats other people's kids as he'd want his own treated. Do you think that the folks who peddle these Coke cards to the schools want their own kids drinking 20-ounce soft drinks of sugar and caffeine?

As Michael Schudson writes in his book "Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: It's Dubious Impact on American Society" (Basic Books, 1986), those who create the messages of advertisement are promoting "values that, on a personal basis, few advertisers or copywriters would affirm for themselves or their children."

Advertisement, in other words, is a form of teaching in which the teacher's motives are kept hidden, and in which the teacher seeks to persuade the student of something that he himself does not necessarily believe.

Of course, American children are already bombarded with such messages.

But is the cost so small if we allow our schools to become yet another zone in which our children are exposed to those who seek to use their feelings, beliefs, and perceptions for their own gain?

We hear a lot of complaints these days about the "culture of cynicism" in contemporary America.

If we want less cynicism, maybe we should insist that our schools be a safe zone, a place where our children can trust that all the official messages they receive are in the service of true education, where they need not be wary of being treated as a means to other people's ends.

It's already an open question which institution - schools or corporate advertising - more powerfully shapes the minds of America's young.

It's not only because the children of America spend a comparable amount of time in front of the television screen as in the classroom. There's also the relative power of the pedagogic methods.

The people who profit from the inculcation of the belief that the path to human fulfillment lies in the purchasing of products have developed a technology of instruction as powerful and sophisticated as anything else in our high-tech society.

"Selling goods is one of the most expert acts ever developed on this continent," Ivan Preston writes in his book on advertising.

IN THE Middle Ages, when the power of the sword held sway, other values were preserved behind cloistered walls. In our times, if we want other values to endure than those dictated by the "almighty dollar," we too must create protected spaces. Our schools should be such places.

*Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who lives in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His newest book is 'Debating the Good Society: The Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide' (MIT Press).

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