Sunday, April 21, 2013

Should Any Child be a Brand?

      You know things are bad when even normally even-keeled ed tech writers like Will Richardson are losing their way around an issue.  Richardson is on the right side of most issues.  He's anti-testing, and pro-art and creativity.  But when it comes to theorizing about kids online and the future, he stumbled badly in this recent blog post.  In the post, he's arguing that students need to create and manage their "brand" online.  From the use of the scare quotes to the backtracking in the comments it's clear he's not entirely comfortable with this idea.  It's also clear, he doesn't see a lot of other options.  This is, however, one of those moments where taking a step back and thinking through the implications of what he's proposing is going to be beneficial for everybody involved, especially the kids.
      Let's start with what a brand actually is.  Advertisers and entrepreneurs created brands as we know them in the late 19th century to help distinguish products in a national market place.  No longer did buyers (who are transforming into modern consumers as part of this process) make their purchases based on local reputations and knowledge bases.  You weren't buying Farmer Joe's milk or Baker Mary's biscuits.  You were buying Carnation Milk ("best in the land, comes to your table in the little red can" as one jingle writer put it) and Nabisco's biscuits.  To distinguish these products, the advertisers and industrialists created brands that turned commodities (like milk and wheat) into goods. 
     If we are branding children, we are treating them like commodities.  We all know what happened the last time we treated people like commodities, right?  Let's have a quick reminder shall we?

The issue isn't that Richardson wants to commodify kids.  The problem is he can't see anyway out of it.  As a historian that rings some bells.  He's like Thomas Jefferson flailing about for some solution that he can't see to a problem that he wishes he didn't have.
     The problem here is the way we think about education.  We no longer talk about education as a social or moral good.  We talk about it almost exclusively as an economic transaction.  In so doing, we dehumanize the very people who are most vulnerable.  Students become the dollars spent on them rather than somebody's child; teachers become their retirement packages rather than experienced, knowledgeable professionals; school buildings are no longer community centers but fixed costs.  
       We can think our way out of this, of course.  But it starts with us thinking of education not as an economic transaction, but a social one. 


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I can't stand the word "brand" applied to people (makes me look around for the hot iron). But I worry that we are not going to have the conversation about education as a social transaction. Education is one of the last areas to be commercialized (when someone from Goldman Sachs starts talking about the potential for value in education watch out)and since the language of today is more focused on economic transactions in all spheres I do worry that the ubiquitous "brand" will win out.

    1. Thanks for reading, Karen! The only way to win this fight is to continue to challenge the folks who use the language of branding. We can change the power structure with the power of language. Also, how did you find me? This is a new venture for me and I'm pleased as can be that you're here!