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Thursday 05 June 2003

Field Trips, Commercialism, and Education

The Washington Post ran a story recently about school field trips. It hardly surprises me that they’ve become incredibly lame:

The three dozen first-graders were a rowdy and wiggly bunch, almost as jumpy as some of the animals brought out for them to pet.

The two classes from Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, Md., were on a field trip, 10 minutes from school, visiting a local Petco that was already as familiar to the students as McDonald’s.

That’s an interesting way to put it, because one of the better field trips I went on as a child was to a McDonald’s. I’m not sure, now, whether this was a field trip to a McDonald’s, or if it was a field trip somewhere else, but with a stop at McDonald’s on the way back. The general routine was, we’d all come equipped with an elaborately-frozen and -wrapped can of soda, which would be left in the school bus all day. While we were at the zoo, or the Arch, or the Twinkie factory (yes), or at the brewery (yes, really, in high school), the bus would head off to a nearby McDonald’s and pick up a hundred burgers and several bushels of fries, which we’d eat in a park or something before heading back to the school.

Anyway, one time we actually went to a McDonald’s in person, and we were given the grand tour. Did you know those places have basements? Some of them do, anyway. Or at least one.

Is it legitimate to take kids to a McDonald’s in the interest of education? The Indymedia crowd would almost certainly denounce the trip as capitalist indoctrination, training kids for their future as McDonald’s slaves and Tools of the Machine.

I, on the other hand, approve. McDonald’s is part of the world we live in, and a McDonald’s restaurant, taken as a whole, is a pretty interesting machine. I don’t think it would make for a good field trip all by itself — there’s not enough there to engage the kids for very long — but it’s definitely a learning experience.

Going to Petco, though, I’m not sure about. We once went to a grocery store, but the attraction there was in the back-room areas, the storeroom with twenty-foot-high stacks of toilet paper, the butcher shop with its hanging carcasses, the enormous walk-in refrigerator where eggs, cheese, milk, and such were stocked directly onto the shelves that fronted on the ordinary part of the supermarket.

That is, the attraction and redeeming value of the McDonald’s and grocery store field trips were that they exposed me to something that was ordinarily hidden. Yes, these were places of commerce and places we’d been hundreds of times already; but we hadn’t been there in the same way, as observers from the other side of the looking-glass, as it were.

Visiting an enormous pet store so you can play with puppies and kittens just doesn’t seem to be in the same league. The problem isn’t that commercial interests are sponsoring field trips, or even that they’re sponsoring field trips doubling as marketing exercises. Hell, the trip to the Twinkie factory was clearly a marketing gimmick — they had a special room in the basement of the factory where a former Harlem globetrotter they had on full-time field-trip duty showed us a movie about Wonder Bread (same company) while we scarfed down Ding Dongs. But at the same time, there were things to be learned there: how bread is baked on a massive scale (a conveyor belt that continuously runs pans of good through an oven that can take thirty loaves across, that’s how); how they get the goo inside the Twinkies and Ding Dongs (another machine, surprisingly enough); and how the squiggly icing is put on top of Hostess cupcakes (yet another machine, with a cam-driven icing nozzle).

The problem is that the schools are swallowing these marketing exercises without making much of an attempt to get anything educational out of them. Part of this is probably laziness, but more of it is an ever-narrowing definition of what is ‘educational’. I’m of the opinion that nearly anything novel that you expose a child to is educational, but the establishment ever0increasingly sees education solely as something that happens in a classroom. And, if that’s true, then just about all field trips are a waste of time, so you might as well take the path of least resistance and truck the kids down to Petco.

Posted by tino at 14:18 5.06.03
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One thing that this story failed to point out (that was actually pointed out in an editiorial in the Washinton Post 6 June 2003) was that policy in

Anne Arundel County (where Arnold MD is located) schools was that trips to the District of Columbia and the wealth of non-corporate possiblities it provides is off limits “for the safety of the children”.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at June 6, 2003 12:22 PM

I went to McDonalds on a Cub Scout field trip as a tyke. If memory serves me right, it was the one on Route 23 in Wayne, NJ.

I recall being amazed at the soda fountain. Three buttons, corresponding to the three cup sizes they had then (Small, Medium and Large, instead of Big, Ginormous, and Cornholio). Alas, no basement, no Globetrotter, no free Ding Dongs. Free Happy Meal, though.

I wound up working at Taco Bell as my first legal job when I turned 16. (I’d had a few under-the-table gigs previously.) I knew then that I wasn’t going to be working there for the rest of my life: it was fun, it had its moments, but there was no real advancement from line monkey.

I think Indymedia has it wrong in thinking that a McJob is the be-all end-all of employment. It’s a step, nothing more. A lot of times it’s a step up: giving a teenager her first job, or a guy coming off a rehab program a chance to start over from the beginning, or a special needs person an opportunity to be a contributing member of society. (Aside: Why is it that when a liberal says “Special needs people want to be treated like anyone else,” and the rest of us believe her, and put the special needs person to work doing something at which they can be successful, the same liberal will turn around and accuse us of “exploiting” said person? Anyway.) Sometimes the step is down; I almost took a job at McDonalds after my business went under. But rarely do you see someone looking at a 40-year career as a McJob line monkey.

(Yes, I just ended two paragraphs with the phrase “line monkey”. And I think that “cam-driven icing nozzle” is going to be the name of my first album.)

Someone else said it best: “There’s a reason it’s called work and not blowjob.” All jobs suck. Some jobs suck less than others, but all jobs suck, and the entry-level jobs suck most of all. Anyone can flip a burger; most anyone can be trained in the McJob system in under 40 hours, and be really good at it in under 80. That’s why they only pay Minimum Wage: Large supply of workers (practically everybody who can stand), fairly small demand for them (by small, I mean that the number of McJobs doesn’t change by huge percentages over time).

Now, let’s look at, say, the market for a Unix System Administrator. (I happen to be one.) If you stopped 100 people on the street, maybe 10 could tell you what Unix is. (Hint: It’s not a plural.) Most people are not inclined to working with computers, or have the troubleshooting skills to administrate a computer, or have the capacity to memorise the 3 million commands and their options necessary to administrate a Unix server, or the rudimentary programming skills necessary to create their own automation tools. A Unix admin has the unique intersection of those four (and probably other) inclinations and skills. Which is why even in the sticks, a Unix admin will make twice as much per hour as a McJobber: Low supply, slightly higher demand.

I find it ironic that so many Marxists don’t understand economics all that well.

Posted by: Twonk at June 6, 2003 01:58 PM

We went to a KFC in grade school, and I still remember a lot of it. I was really interesting, actually. We may have also gone to a McDonald’s, but since I have less of a recollection of that, it must not have been as interesting after the KFC.

We went to the Lever Bros. factory in middle school, as well as a ceramics factory the next year. All of it was worthwhile.

The Petco is a very poor substitute for the zoo, IMO.

Posted by: Nicole at June 6, 2003 05:27 PM

The McDonald’s I toured as a Cub Scout had a basement. Back then in the late 70’s McD’s had a steak sandwitch and there were a couple of raw steak sandwitch patties loose

in the walk-in basement cooler. I remember they looked like foot prints from a kid’s moon boots, except made in bloody snow.

Posted by: RRP at June 6, 2003 08:49 PM