Over the years, there have been lots of examples of corporate interests making their way into classrooms. Teachers are well familiar with the posters oh so kindly donated by companies which plug their products in one way or another, or even go so far as to steer the politics of teaching.
Is this just the way schools get materials today, since we can’t seem to find the resources to fund our schools fully? Should we see this as schools getting the job done by whatever means necessary, or is it more nefarious than that? Even though, in states like Maine, soda and candy are being banned along with the advertising for them, there are more than enough loopholes to drive a delivery truck through. At the school where I taught, when the ban went through, they changed the sign at the athletic fields from a Pepsi logo to a different Pepsi brand. Inside, the soda machines were stocked with other Pepsi brands, from water to juices, but it is still a Pepsi brand on the side of the machine. Why does the school keep them at all? Because the distributor pays the school a portion of the profits from the machines.
There are also lots of other examples of corporate interests trying to create ‘brand loyalty’ at a young age and pushing their products. There are even companies set up to market to kids in schools. What, then, is needed, is media literacy and getting kids thinking about ways to understand what they see around them and the motives behind that, especially as online marketing to kids gets more and more sophisticated.
But what if the corporate interests in the classroom are not so obvious as that Proctor and Gamble poster trumpeting the glories of their products? In the world of pharmaceuticals, many drug companies are paying universities for research on their drugs. This, in and of itself, is fine, but what happens when they pay the university to create a course based on their products? Several years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health started coursework around the benefits of hormone therapy, even though a clinical trial had actually been halted five years early because of the dangers of this therapy. For six years, doctors took this online course that was sponsored by, you guessed it, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the makers of the hormone drugs! Now that someone asked questions about it, they’ve halted the course, but how many students (in this case doctors who will then go treat patients based on this information) were given information that is not only wrong, but potentially deadly to women who undergo this therapy?
There are plenty of subtexts here about how our culture values women (this sort of thing never seems to happen in clinical trials of men, or white people, does it….), but we need to find more effective ways to be sure that education is a completely free-standing institution that presents lessons based on the best information available, no matter if it’s 2nd grade or medical school.