Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Friday: Teaching About Consumerism

Consumerism: n. the belief that it is good for people to spend money on goods and services; a preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.

In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has been dubbed by the media as "Black Friday." It is a time when stores (usually large chain and "big box" stores) run sales to attract people to begin Christmas shopping. This results in crowded shopping malls across the country (see the above picture). It has even become a consumer tradition to wait out of stores the night before in hopes of getting that "hot-ticket" item. In the recent decades, "Black Friday" has also been marked by stampeding herds of people running into stores after opening. Often the ensuing fights and injuries among shoppers are then covered by the same media sources that promoted Black Friday.

Consumerism developed in the United States in the late 19th century and has increasingly become a component of modern American life. The first major boom in consumerism occurred during the 1920s (see the below picture of billboards outside New York City during this time) and a second major boom after World War II (see the below picture of a California shopping mall in the 1950s). The cost of this consumerism has been a dramatically inequitable allocation of wealth, increased global pollution, and negative psychological effects on individuals. Moreover, almost everything in western society is being commoditized. Services that were once for the public good are becoming privatized (an idea rooted in Milton Friedman's work on privatizing education and supported by current day wealthy philanthropists). The term "consumer" is problematically used to describe people who seek education, housing, or health care. There are underlying assumptions that consumers can make the best choices in the market place and capitalism creates fair and equalizing conditions.

Yet, students are rarely taught in their social studies classrooms to be critical of consumerism and capitalism. While there are many economics curricula and lesson plans that promote an uncritical view of capitalism, there are also numerous resources that highlight the problems caused by it. By challenging students to think about consumerism, they learn to question a system that has potentially negative effects on communities and nations. If students gain a better understanding of the economic system and the problems that arise from it, they develop important critical thinking skills necessary to be democratic citizens.

Here are some websites for helping students better understand consumerism:

Ad Busters: Buy Nothing Day Campaign
A grassroots movement to create an international day of protest against consumerism celebrated annually just after Thanksgiving. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Social Justice Economics Lesson
A lesson plan that I created for teaching key economic concepts through a social justice lens. Highlights that not everyone starts with the same resources and that the system has certain advantages and disadvantages. More appropriate for elementary students.

Media Smarts
A Canadian Center for digital and media literacy. Has many lesson plans related to consumerism. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Oakland Unified School District: Critical Consumerism Unit
A unit plan developed by J. Flaningam of the Oakland Unified School District to teach his students to critically read the world of consumerism.

The Story of Stuff
A popular 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students. 

TED Talks on Consumerism
Short talks on consumerism from the TED Conference. Some frame it in positive terms and others question it. More appropriate for secondary students. 

Film: PBS Frontline: The Persuaders
Examines the world of marketing, from products to politics and its impact on the American social structure.

Film: The Corporation
A 2003 Canadian documentary film that examined the modern-day corporation. More appropriate for secondary students.

Film: PBS American Experience: Tupperware
Looks at 1950s consumerism through the development of the Tupperware product line. More appropriate for secondary students.

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