Why worry about paedophiles and drug-pushers when big business poses a far greater threat? Nicholas Tucker looks at a sobering analysis of the commercial plundering of childhood in the US
Childhood is a social construction as well as a biological process. Parents, increasingly backed up by the state, have always tended to raise children in the light of what they believe others will expect of them in later life, with such expectations varying according to family wealth and prevailing cultural and economic norms.
These norms change over time, with religious and community influences less powerful today than they were a century ago. But while childhood can never be culture-free, there will always be fierce individual quarrels with the prevailing culture at any time.
Henry Giroux, professor of secondary education at Pennsylvania State University, argues that as his own country becomes inexorably more commercialised, the only type of citizenship its "national entertainment state" has to offer children is that of consumerism.
He notes a familiar pattern that occurs whenever a conservative administration cuts taxes while running down welfare and support services for the disadvantaged. Schools, taking the full brunt of the intensified poverty that results, and already over-worked and under-staffed, are then criticised for failing to provide a proper education to increasingly alienated pupils. Time, therefore, to bring in the private sector to make a better job of running inner-city schools.
Making the most of the opportunity for quick profits, private firms also set about putting their unique stamp on the education day. School notices and classroom displays in the US may now carry advertisements, and special deals are struck up, in one case involving the provision of free personal computers and internet access in exchange for the right to display on-screen advertising for at least four hours a day. Pupils who refuse to comply are promptly suspended or even expelled. Giroux cites the case of two high-school students in Georgia who wore shirts bearing the Pepsi logo during an aerial photo-shoot of students dressed in red and white to form the "Coke" logo, at an event sponsored by Coca-Cola.
Away from school, the author sees commercial forces filling the social vacuum left by absent parents and the decline of public values in other undesirable ways. In an excellent chapter on child beauty pageants, now a billion-dollar-a-year industry, he laments the way in which small children's bodies have been appropriated, prematurely sexualised and let out to commercial profit.
Paedophiles, drug-pushers, pornographers and other deviants are portrayed as the chief dangers to children in modern society. But little is said about the way the corporate giants that sponsor beauty pageants may also be acting against children's best interests.
Having won the political arguments, the new conservatism, with all the force of media manipulation on its side, is seen here as winning the main cultural ones too. For the author, this means that a once liberal culture is now synonymous with a market culture, alongside what US critical theorist Cornel West, has described as a "creeping Zeitgeist of cold-heartedness and mean-spiritedness".
Much of this currently fashionable harshness is directed at children and parents already living on the margins, and therefore less potentially interesting to commercial forces and seen as irrelevant nuisances by those enjoying the fruits of what, for them, is still a thriving economy.
One answer to the existence of this growing underclass is to build more prisons. Jim Pitts, a Republican legislator from Texas, has gone further, attempting to pass state laws that would apply the death penalty to children as young as 11.
The situation in Britain is thankfully different, with the Government spending more money on all children and keenly interested in promoting the type of after-school activities difficult to find in the US for those pupils who could most benefit from them. But New Labour's continuing love affair with private sector involvement in education continues to be worrying, given the appalling examples Giroux quotes of what can happen when this gets out of hand. Continental schools meanwhile still manage fairly well with education systems run exclusively by the state, and it is worth remembering that the eventual choice between American and European ways of running our economy may have important implications for schools.
This is not an easy book: it is repetitive and in general clumsily written, with the second half given over to dense theoretical discussion. But it is an important one, both for what it says about the US and for what this implies for education and culture here. It deserves to be read.
Nicholas Tucker is senior lecturer in cultural and community studies at the University of Sussex