Academic journal article Social Education

Colonizing Our Future: The Commercial Transformation of America's Schools

Academic journal article Social Education

Colonizing Our Future: The Commercial Transformation of America's Schools

Article excerpt

AMERICA'S SCHOOLS are indeed haunted. The uneasy spirit of John Dewey, as Bill Doll suggests in "Ghosts and the Curriculum,"(1) wanders the corridors of public education watching and waiting for his ideas to, at long last, be made flesh in the daily life of schools. Doll dares to hope that the second millennium will belong to Dewey. I do not share Doll's optimism. In my view, it is the spirits of Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays that are more likely to be happily at home in America's schools and classrooms this century than the spirit of John Dewey.

The names Lee and Bernays may be unfamiliar to you. They are not discussed in educational history texts or curriculum guides; however, they are well known to students of business administration as the fathers of American public relations. A little bit of historical background will help explain the nature of their impact on schools and school curriculum.

Ivy Lee, a former newspaper reporter, made his mark early in the twentieth century working for the Rockefellers. He rose to prominence on the heels of a bloodbath. On April 20, 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado, the state militia opened fire on a tent city of striking miners and their families. Fifty-three people, including thirteen women and children, were killed in the massacre. The events in "bloody Ludlow" aroused widespread public sympathy for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company strikers and provoked outrage at the mine owners, the Rockefeller family. In response to inflamed public opinion, the Rockefellers hired Ivy Lee to change the public perception of their mining operation and their family.

To sell the corporate story and discredit the strikers, Lee oversaw the production of so-called "fact sheets," recruited prominent people to write widely circulated letters in support of the mine owners, and heavily publicized trips to the Colorado mine site by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Mr. Lee's efforts helped create modern public relations and did, in fact, to a large extent succeed in quelling public hostility toward the mining company. Mr. Lee may have been well paid for his services, but we can be fairly sure that, whatever he was paid, it was certainly a good deal less than it might have cost the Rockefellers to raise wages, reduce the hours worked, or improve safety in the mines.(2) Lee was without question a master of the art of what he called "getting believed."(3)

A keen awareness of the importance in a democratic society of "getting believed" animated the work of Edward Bernays. Bernays, whose mother was Sigmund Freud's sister and whose father was Freud's wife's brother, sought to harness social science research to the task he called "the engineering of consent." During World War I he worked for the Committee on Public Information, helping the committee sell the Wilson administration's war policies. After the war, Bernays signed on as "public relations counsel" to an impressive list of America's most powerful corporations.

Bernays preached the gospel that public relations was essential in a democracy and that social science knowledge was essential to public relations. He articulated his views quite clearly in his 1928 book Propaganda.(4) He began the book by arguing that "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."(5)

In Bernays's view, democratic civic life was a marketplace every bit as much as economic life. He took it as axiomatic that competing political interests would seek to put their views before the public just as competing economic interests would seek to promote their products and services. Bernays did not consider this an evil process nor did he regard "propaganda" as a dirty word. Propaganda was, as he saw it, essential to keep the wheels of politics and commerce turning while preserving social stability. …

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