This algebra class brought to you by Nike
Toronto Star - February 21, 1999
SO TEENAGERS ARE too drenched in media images, addicted to the bright colours and shallow values of the shopping mall and the video arcade and are under-equipped with critical skills?
Well, here's one Ontario government response: Cut all of Ontario's much-admired media literacy courses from the new high school curriculum.
For good measure, here's the private sector approach: Force students to watch more TV, including compulsory commercial-viewing in class time. Every day. All year.
At Meadowvale High School in Mississauga (John Snobelen's riding, if you want even more ironies), they're pumped about YNN - Youth News Network, the private television company that first tried to break into the public high school system five years ago with daily news broadcasts that come complete with commercials. The idea was rejected by parent groups and school boards from the Maritimes to Alberta.
I shouldn't sound flippant, I suppose. It actually saddens me that it took only five years for the idea of public, non-commercial education to fade to the point of invisibility. "Public" - meaning owned by all of us, and accountable to all of us - has given way to the ubiquitous "partnerships," in which business calls the shots and, despite all the smarmy "pro-social" verbiage, is really accountable to no-one but its shareholders.
YNN, after all, is a profit-making venture. It wants to package Canadian students as a captive audience in order to reap large profits from advertisers. Five years ago, this proposal sparked a noisy row from coast to coast. This time, there's been barely a peep of protest.
And no wonder: YNN has loaded Meadowvale with "high-end" equipment worth about $150,000 - 82 TV monitors, in every class, even in the office, cafeteria and hallways, plus an entire computer lab and a satellite dish on the roof.
School principal Laurie Pedwell is so happy about this hardware bonanza that she participated in a YNN promotional video, praising the "wonderful results" of the program - after just one screening of a 12-minute YNN newscast, including two minutes of commercials for chewing gum, video games, flavoured milk and sugared cereal. The promo has been sent to 2,300 Canadian high schools, urging them to leap on to the bandwagon.
Many unanswered questions circle around YNN. Within an hour of interviewing the school principal, I began getting very friendly and eager-to-inform calls from the chair of the Peel school board, Hill and Knowlton (yes, YNN has employed one of the world's most powerful public relations firms) and from company headquarters.
All stressed that this is just a pilot project, that the school can pull out at any time, that regular broadcasting won't begin until September. But every single one fell silent for a moment when I asked how a seven-month pilot project could consist of just one viewing of one 12-minute broadcast.
In fact, that's all the schools will see (aside from the fabulous hardware, of course) before YNN asks them to sign a five-year contract by June. YNN schools must then guarantee that 80 per cent of the students watch the daily broadcast 90 per cent of the time. Channel One in the U.S. enforces compliance by installing an electronic monitor in each TV set, telling the company how often, how long and how loudly each set is on. YNN president Rod MacDonald told me that he won't ask for electronic surveillance at this time (though it is proposed in the contract) but will settle for attendance records. "It's a relationship of trust," he said.
YNN's stance is that students are too cynical to be taken in by commercials, so no one has to worry. So . . . they're supposed to turn off their skepticism for the potboiled news broadcast, produced by Telescene in Montreal, and switch it back on for commercials? That might be an even more dubious compromise. The one "pilot" broadcast available was riddled with subtle political bias. In an item about the Quebec election, the only voicing of the sovereignist view was given in rapid, heavily accented French. An item about genetically altered food suggested that clever bioengineering could end the use of pesticides - the direct opposite of what is actually happening. Finally, a "finance professor" explained that Canada's falling dollar was caused mostly by huge government debt due to overspending on social programs. Students would find, said the prof, that the foreign goods they crave (wide shot of a Nike shoe display) would be much more expensive. Unfortunately, the content and slant of these daily newscasts will be beyond the teachers' reach, monitored only by a "national advisory council" chosen by YNN's parent company, Athena Educational Partners.
That may be what you call "accountable" in the business world, but it doesn't look anything like a democratically governed educational system.
Another wee wrinkle in the grand scheme: Athena has contracted out an "independent evaluation study" to Professor Les McLean at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The study won't begin until September, by which time participating schools who signed up will be locked into their five-year contract. Bow out, and bye-bye to all the techno loot.
Parents in Mississauga can attend a public meeting tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in the Meadowvale school library, 6700 Edenwood Drive. The principal has warned her staff that the "commercials will not be up for discussion." But who knows? The public may still be able to to change her mind.
Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. Her E-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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