A student flicks off the lights in a Mark Twain High School classroom in San Francisco. The teacher pops a video into the VCR, and as a newshour jingle fills the room, the class settles down.
“We’ve made hasty conclusions about what is good for the environment,” former NBC anchorman Jim Hartz explains from the screen to the ninth-grade class. Sitting in what appears to be a newsroom, the Emmy Award-winning journalist soberly intones, “We’re here to explore the facts.”
The facts, according to this educational video, are that plastics are the “ideal material” to produce, recycle, burn, or just toss in landfills. As Hartz sums up at the end of the 13-minute video, “The experts all agree that polystyrene plastics (the stuff of styrofoam) rate well on environmental criteria.”
The video, “Polystyrene Plastics and the Environment,” is owned, controlled, and distributed by Mobil Corporation, which mails it, free of charge, to schools around the country. All but one of the experts appearing in the video are full-time employees of the plastics industry.
Yet most of the Mark Twain students who viewed the Mobil video at the request of San Francisco Weekly thought it came from an environmental group. They must have missed the minuscule Mobil copyright sign that appears at the video’s end, the only indication it was created by one of the country’s largest manufacturers of plastics.
The Mobil video is just one example of the expanding effort of major corporations to win the hearts and minds of today’s public school students — or more to the point, of tomorrow’s consumers. In recent years, most major corporations, some of whom are also big polluters, have begun supplying schools in San Francisco and across the country with educational materials, which, not surprisingly, whitewash the environmental dangers of our trashy consumer society.
Nor is it surprising that corporations are targeting schools at a time of growing environmental radicalism among the younger generation. Environmentalists say school-age kids, angry over the mess adults have left for them to clean up, represent the most militant wing of environmentalism.
Major corporations are well aware of this trend, says San Francisco Greenpeace spokesman Bill Walker, and they are doing their bottom-line best to turn angry young environmentalists into happy consumers. “I’ve noticed a spate of reports recently from the oil and timber industries. They are raising a stink because they think school curricula go too far in favor of environmentalism,” said Walker. “Providing their own educational materials is one way for them to strike back.”
After viewing the Mobil video, some ninth-graders at Mark Twain High School must have felt as bewildered as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate after he was lectured about plastics’ bright future. But many of them took Mobil’s message to heart. In a written evaluation, one student said of those who made the video, “[They are] caring people. People who really are concerned about the environment.”
“Reach her before she gets credit,” says an advertisement for Madison Avenue’s Modern Talking Picture Service. Modern is a major producer and distributor of corporate educational materials on the environment and other topics. The Modern advertisement, which appeared in Advertising Age, shows a school girl carrying her books, and continues: “Modern product sampling can help you develop brand loyalty even before she becomes a serious shopper. To put your product in her hands, call us…”
Modern claims to reach more than 35 million students a year on behalf of its corporate clients. Among the educational products it distributes are: Procter & Gamble’s “Planet Patrol,” used in about 80,000 classrooms; Browning-Ferris’ “waste curriculum,” available in 49 states; the American Coal Foundation’s “Coal and the Environment”; Edison Electric’s “The Chosen Place,” on wildlife; and Johnson Wax’s “Ozone: The Hole” video.
This proliferation of corporate-manufactured educational materials comes at a time when most school districts in America are so financially strapped they can barely supply their students with up-to-date textbooks. Teachers say that in these hard times it’s tough for them to turn down the corporate materials, which come to them completely free of charge.
“There’s no question that more and more corporations are supplying educational materials because the states are coming up short,” said Dr. Ron Cleminson of Memphis State University. Cleminson, who has worked for Exxon, Chevron, and the coal and plastics industries, added, “They come up with cutting-edge programs.”
But Ruth Smith of the California Department of Education’s Video Instruction Materials Clearinghouse is critical of the corporate invasion of education, “They are trying to move in and fill the gap. But I don’t know if it’s such a good idea,” said Smith. The clearinghouse has examined over 17,000 educational videos. “Quite a few (of the corporate freebies) are very slanted and the ones dealing with environmental matters are not balanced.”
Worse yet, California and other states are failing to intervene and stop the corporate attempt to twist young minds. California long ago gave the job of screening supplemental materials to the counties. While some Bay Area counties like San Francisco still review these materials, others don’t.
Dr. Loretta Chin, learning resources coordinator for the Alameda Office of Education, did the job until she was laid off in June, a casualty of Gov. Pete Wilson’s budget cuts. “Are we now going to incorporate the materials without looking at them?” Chin asked rhetorically. “Everyone wants to look more ecological and the way to do that is to brainwash the kids.”
During her tenure, Chin said, she rejected and returned thousands of corporate curricula. The corporations got the message: They now circumvent her office by mailing directly to the schools and teachers, who might be less picky because they “desperately need materials,” she said.
The latest corporate foray into California schools came in October, when Exxon held workshops in San Jose, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. During these sessions the oil giant introduced its “Energy Cube” to teachers, who plan to include it in their classroom curriculum this spring.
The Energy Cube, an elaborate package of lab experiments, text, and videos, is advertised as an innovative way to teach students how to make responsible energy choices. (Exxon spent $1.6 million to develop it, an amount that would have purchased new textbooks for all San Francisco public school students.) The video portion takes four student “travelers” on a psychedelic journey through space, where they learn “real-world energy choices and the social implications of those choices.”
Unfortunately, the Energy Cube’s creator somehow forgot to include any serious discussion of the connection between petroleum and pollution. For instance, a segment on the automobile and society relegates pollution to a two-second shot of a tailpipe and a voiceover saying, “And there’s car exhaust.” Gasoline is described as a form of solar power hidden in “decayed organic matter.”
Out of 370 pages of lessons and information, 15 deal with the environment — and most of that merely discusses how big business has taken care of the problem. The text acknowledges the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and offshore drilling but doesn’t go into detail about any of these issues.
Offshore drilling is described as good for fishing and “not damag(ing) to the environment.”
Other examples of one-sided materials abound. Consider the “Energy Study Plan,” which is used in San Francisco public schools. Put out by the National Energy Foundation, a front for private utilities, the plan discusses energy — filling six volumes — without mentioning pollution.
“The foundation didn’t want to be too negative,” said spokesman Ray Cornia.
Keep America Beautiful, a corporatebacked information group, defines trash incineration as “recycling” in its curriculum “Waste: A Hidden Resource.” How did the group come to this amazing conclusion?
“An energy source is stored in plastics, then recovered as an energy source during incineration.” The lesson plan from Keep America Beautiful is found in 45 states.
“I feel very comfortable with the contents of the Energy Cube,” said Cleminson of Memphis State University, who was hired by Exxon to create it. “The video is to get students thinking and then refer to the written materials — that is the heart of the matter.”
But educators say that less than half of the states have an environmental curriculum, leaving teachers heavily dependent on corporate information. “Teachers do not have time to develop a curriculum. That’s why these materials are so dangerous,” said David Siegenthaler of the Institute for Earth Education. “It’s deception by omission.”
Last year a group of Santa Cruz high schools took it upon themselves to set up YES! — Youth for Environmental Sanity. In some 300 high schools across the country YES! performed skits and role plays to radicalize other students.
“Kids are the cutting edge of the environmental movement today,” said Walker of Greenpeace. “Young people are practicing a more radical brand of environmentalism.
They see the Earth is being left to them in sorry shape and they are, quite frankly, very angry about it.”
As a result, Greenpeace, the National Resource Defense Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other groups are, like major corporations, targeting students with education programs. Greenpeace, for one, puts out a newsletter called P3 — which stands for Planet 3 or the Earth — aimed at pre-teens. A recent issue of P3 suggested that kids dress up as an endangered species for Halloween.
Whether or not the corporate campaign to quiet down the rowdy environmentalism of today’s youth will have an impact is anyone’s guess. But, as Walker points out, “The companies do realize that they are in trouble with the pop culture generation that’s growing up right now. They rightfully see this age group as the new battleground.”