Do Corporations Rule the Schools?

The carnival-like setting of the National Science Teachers Convention is the largest gathering of educators in the nation, drawing more than 14,000 science teachers and hundreds of exhibitors passing out armloads of pamphlets, packets, books, stickers, posters and other educational goodies.

Though there were a handful of conservation groups at the event, those of us sitting at the Native Forest Council booth were clearly in the minority.

When I started teaching 20 years ago, I could never have imagined such a perverse display: industries and their front groups trying to justify everything from deforestation to extinction of species. Worse yet, they were targeting America's teachers and, ultimately, our children. Corporate America has dug its claws into one of the last refuges of commercial-free space left in our society, public schools. One of the pillars of our democracy, public education, is now for sale.

-The coal industry's Greening Earth Society passed out videos and teachers guides to the "fallacies" of global warming that mocked environmental concerns;

-Weyerhaeuser boasted of the recovery of Mt. St. Helens, as if this somehow justified clear-cutting;

- The "Temperate Forest Foundation" offered a video titled "The Dynamic Forest." In this shrill presentation, insects and fire hurt forests, but industry provides the needed remedies--with the help of chain saws;

-The American Farm Bureau, avowed enemies of environmental education, propositioned teachers to reconsider the dangers of chemical biocides.

They were selling lies, and the teachers were buying -- filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes. Where were the largest environmental groups to counter this frontal assault on environmental education? Where was the outcry of the educational community? Their deafening silence was tantamount to complicit resignation.

Selling Out Our Schools

Most people consider public schools to be hallowed ground, where young people of various religions, races and social strata collectively learn the tools of citizenship. Yet multinational corporations now view our children's schools as convenient locations for the dissemination of propaganda debunking environmental concerns, and as the tip of an unbelievably profitable marketing iceberg.

Education about the environment is being assaulted on two fronts. First, multinational corporations are designing and distributing environmental curricula that are professionally produced, easy to use, often free and extremely biased in favor of industry. Second, some of the most prominent conservative think-tanks in America are mounting a well-funded attack on genuine environmental education.

Their objective is simple: Protect industries that despoil the planet and prevent any emergence of citizen awareness. The spectrum of curricula is breathtaking and its shamelessness is overt. The American Nuclear Society provides "Let's Color and Do Activities With the Atoms Family." Materials I received from Exxon portray the Prince William Sound cleanup as a victory of technology, brushing over the cause of the disaster, the Exxon Valdez.

But the most brazen campaign of miseducation is carried out by the timber industry.

Big timber spends millions on its thinly veiled national PR campaigns, touting them as educational programs (which, of course, they generously donate to public schools). The timber industry offers hikes, presentations and paid workshops for teachers. It distributes books, posters, videos, lesson plans and other materials. Through the looking glass of big timber, old growth forest become decadent biological deserts that require clear-cutting in order to survive. Industry is not destroying the forests, the propaganda explains, it is "managing" them, acting as their stewards -- even saviors.

Project Learning Tree

Often the very organizations that preach the gospel of environmental education are actually industry shills. They have earthy names but clandestine roots. The American Forest Foundation (AFF) has a list of co-sponsors, cooperators and partners that includes some of the most egregious despoilers of our forests: Sierra Pacific, Pacific Lumber, MacMillian Bloedel, Williamette Industries, Boise Cascade.

But the real story is found in one of AFF's core programs, "Project Learning Tree" (PLT).

I first encountered PLT several summers ago when I was asked to lead a tour of teachers through Opal Creek, a wilderness area in the Willamette National Forest. Opal Creek is perhaps the most intact, pristine low-elevation watershed in the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, it has been preserved thanks to the efforts of the very activists that organizations like PLT oppose.

At the time that I agreed to lead the tour, I knew nothing about PLT. I arrived early at our meeting place by the clear waters of the Santiam River. I felt honored by the opportunity to hike with teachers from across the globe and discuss the old-growth forest that I had defended in a presentation before a U.S. Senate committee.

Kathy McGlauflin, vice president of PLT, accompanied us on our sojourn. We walked two miles along some of Opal Creek's most spectacular riparian zones. Much to my surprise, McGlauflin spoke more like a timber booster than an environmental education expert.

I explained that the native forests have been overcut and replanted, creating one-species tree farms instead of forest ecosystems. McGlauflin responded that this was my own personal opinion, not reality. She erroneously told the group that hemlock and cedars were replanted in large numbers after clear-cutting. She even claimed that apple orchards could be considered forest ecosystems. It seemed inconceivable that the representative of a supposedly pro-forest organization could be so misinformed.

I later found out the PLT is an industry front group, backed by timber dollars. The organization's website and printed materials look like something produced by an environmental group. PLT boasts a network of 3,000 grassroots volunteers and more than 100 state coordinators. This grassroots veneer is shrewd greenwash, and unfortunately, it is working.

Formed in 1970, PLT works to promote paper products, logging and industrial management of our nation's forests. They offer this version of "environmental education" to students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade and claim to have reached more than 500,000 educators and 25 million students.

PLT's educational materials are damning enough. But, as the saying goes, if you want the truth, follow the money. The industries that bankroll PLT include some of the nation's most passionate clear-cutters.

Turning the Tide

Surreptitious public relations campaigns and deceptive advertising are battling today for the hearts and minds of our children. This battle will affect their health and their collective futures. Will we turn over public learning centers to those who see children as pawns in the game of quarterly profits? Will we allow them to create a generation of apathetic and jaded young adults, disinterested in social issues and steeped in indoctrination that tells them that corporate technology will save the day and that activism is for others?

The environmental community must call corporate America on its sham. I can't imagine, for example, why the North America Association of Environmental Education (the largest environmental education group in the world) has endorsed Project Learning Tree. We must refuse to ally ourselves with those who try to manipulate children. Organizations that claim to speak for the environment must remove corporate polluters from their board of directors.

At a recent conference, an environmental education activist told me that we need to be more "centrist" in our approach to solving problems. But I cannot take the middle of the road on this one. My children are not saleable property. Industry is not "centrist," and when environmentalists try to avoid conflict, we lose.

Parents must assume the role of front-line warriors in this winnable war. They must demand that any curricula provided by corporate sources be reviewed the same way textbooks are reviewed. They must challenge their local boards of education to keep their schools free of commercial influences. Corporate predators in education are no different that those who peddle tobacco to children. They must bear the scorn of society and be stopped in their tracks.

Most importantly, we must highlight the wonders of true environmental education. I have seen children connect to their natural world discussing "A Sand County Almanac" in the classroom, hiking in the giant cedars of Opal Creek, and identifying invertebrates in our majestic tidal pools. Children care about the world and its beauty, our common heritage.

Thousands of dedicated teachers are working every day to enlighten their students. They need funding, and it is incumbent upon society to see that schools don't have to go begging to industry.

Teachers must begin to comprehend the "teachable moment" -- that indelible instance when data and caring and insight all merge as one, representing all that is good about ecological sciences in public schools. This moment does not require a slick video, fancy equipment or corporate money with strings attached. All it takes is students and teachers, exploring the natural world together.

John F. Borowski teaches environmental and marine science at North Salem High in Philomath, Oregon. His articles have appeared in Utne Reader, The New York Times, Z Magazine and EducationNews, among others. Email him at jenjill@proaxis.com.

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