top of page
  • Juliana Neira

Museum of the Future: Schooled in Prison for Freedom at the Mall

By: Juliana Neira

July 27, 2023

Schools and prisons are designed by the same architects. This was the topic of a conversation I had with friends a few weeks ago while wondering about the generations of students from Burlington, Vermont, USA, whose high school was demolished due to asbestos, and the whole school body was moved to a shopping mall downtown. A mall’s building is specially designed to forge as many transactions as possible by keeping a superficial timelessness and a (questionably) pleasant ambiance. Not quite the prison model, but just the right space to teach children what school teaches best: to consume without asking questions. Certainly, not all schools are designed like prisons, not all teachers or pedagogical projects teach to consume, and the local school district in Vermont did a fairly good job renovating the space to host classes, but in my experiences, apart from seeming like prisons, schools consistently missed a fundamental connection between consumption and many of the problems we face today.

In my noncomprehensive experience as a teacher, I visited several schools as a substitute teacher and, once certified, I taught in five different countries and a few different types of schools -private, public, charter, and academy. I started in 2010, a time when Bush’s and Obama’s legacies on U.S. education were being questioned and the system was hungry for teachers to innovate. Influenced by the original video “The Story of Stuff” and the film “Schooling the World”, I strived to make lessons relevant to students’ lives and the places they lived, and studied life cycles of everyday items to sensitize ourselves as consumers. I learned from incredible mentors who believed it was never too late to develop atrophied talents and went out of their way to support students. And I met amazing educators who resisted the eternal problematics (and boredom) of conventional curricula, heavily influenced by a greedy economics based on competition and individualism that lead to the pinnacle of problems: the “freedom” to consume anything, everything, everywhere, and at all times, and the “freedom” to discard anything, everything, however, whenever, wherever (given there’d be a container with trash-looking symbols).

I have little doubt that everyone in a school setting cares for polar bears and burning forests, and I attest that posters all around recite the classic but incomplete reduce, reuse, & recycle. However, in institutionalized curricula, only one class from Kindergarten to grade 12 focuses specifically on “environmental science” and only one country has made this class a requirement. In the U.S. it is an “easy” elective kids might take if they are done with the “hard sciences”. As many reading this blog post might agree, a true so-called “environmental science” would cover the majority of problems humanity and our planet face today, entailing physics, sociology, chemistry, anthropology, biology, psychology, ecology, history, agronomy, economics, meteorology, politics, finance, etcetera, etcetera, and all the derivative subdisciplines and their histories, to even grasp the complexity of our declining diversity, changing climate, and increased inequality and ailments. A high school class taken only by a few is often outdated, and it falls on the overworked teacher to update it and bring it closer to students’ realities while preventing instigation of catastrophe-related anxiety and insensitivity. The “more” important sciences, particularly in secondary grades, focus on developing skills for future adults to be competitive in job markets and behave as future rational, individual, and fully aware consumers, even though we are in fact mostly irrational (consumption decisions follow emotions), social (the most social of all mammals), and almost fully unaware (of the sources and impacts of the items we purchase) as consumers. Therefore, institutional curricula such as the Common Core consistently miss a fundamental connection between future hard-working consumers and the geological scale transformations and socioecological tragedies of our time.

To illustrate, this past 4th of July in the United States, between barbecues, garments, decorations, travel, and fireworks, celebrators spent more than ever breaking consumption records on one of the biggest consumer days in the country. July 4th, 2023, was also the hottest day ever recorded, breaking a record set just the day before, broken again the very next day, and likely again by the time this reflection was written. In the northeast, fireworks blended with smoky skies from the more than 500 wildfires across Canada. Without air conditioning, many parts of the country have remained inhospitable this summer, and heat and pollution-related deaths continue to rise.

It might seem like I am blaming partygoers, implying that holiday burgers and balloons somehow ignited the fires, but this reflection is about education and its missing connections. Therefore, I am openly blaming the corporate-political forces that narrow educational budgets, shape curricula, and benefit from missed connections that maintain people blindly consuming -in the race for more fossil fuels to mass produce more cheap goods and get more satellites in space to target more and more consumers to buy their cheap goods. Undoubtedly, educational institutes are increasingly committed to targeting climate change and inequality in their plans, but in curricula across the U.S. (often adopted by elite schools abroad), the myriad links between modern consumption patterns and pressing problems are absent, resulting in the reproduction of a consumption trend that drives social and ecological destruction daily. It might not be accidental that these trends also fuel 70% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and help maintain gigantic military complexes.

High school in particular is an ideal time to target connections between mass consumption and mass ecological die-offs. Teenagers are developing and defining their identities as consumers, increasingly making their own decisions about each dollar spent. As elementary and middle schoolers, their guardians make consumption decisions for them: what they’ll eat, the clothes they will wear, and the items they will play with. But as young adults, they transition into fully owning those decisions and becoming responsible for how and from whom they will obtain their stuff. If schools had the capacity to make these connections and teach consumer awareness, people might ask more questions when consuming and might make spending choices that might not necessarily contribute to corporations or their nation’s GDP growth.

For example, very few people would intentionally throw garbage at a river, employ a child to exploit their labor, or deny a glass of water to a family. Let me rephrase this: most people care for and protect nature around them, would be upset by dead fish and sickened animals, would be alarmed by inhumane work conditions, and would share their water with a family who needs it. Nevertheless, every single time we purchase something through a market, especially from a corporation, we are engaging in all of the above plus dozens of other utterly consequential actions. Given a handful of transnational corporations control practically all brands found at retail stores, supermarkets, and virtual markets globally, almost every consumption transaction -whether a cellphone, an avocado, pajamas, or a toy- inherently involves polluting water, soil, and air, affecting one or more species (including humans), and denying healthcare, fair pay, or safe conditions to workers. This is not an exaggeration. Following founding principles of profit maximization and cost minimization, and exerting control over trade agreements, legislation, and policy, corporations can legally get away with degrading and killing life to extract, process, transport, and sell items that range from industry-essential (medical needles, housing pipes, school supplies) to absolutely unnecessary and useless. When these end up as trash, they continue to degrade and return to earth as poison. Luckily for corporations, these effects are called “negative externalities”, which means literally not equating ecological degradation and human and animal exploitation in transactions. In fact, by design, processes that transform items across supply chains and the negative effects that take place at each scale are deliberately hidden from consumers and excluded from the final price. Nevertheless, extreme climate events, pollution, biodiversity loss, and human rights violations are some of the costs that society and nature end up paying and that corporations do not.

In words of Siddharth Kara referring to Cobalt mining for electronics, “never in the history of slavery and colonial pillage has there been more suffering and degradation at the bottom of a chain that generated more profit at the top and was linked to the lives of more people around the world, than there is going on in the Congo right now”. In terms of food, industrial production is not designed to feed people, it is among the main causes of deforestation and atmospheric warming, and those who do grow food as commodities, hoard land, deplete water, and have monopolies over supply chains, excluding small farmers from benefiting from global markets. The fashion industry follows pretty much the same model: owned by a few, extremely polluting and exploitative, and profit accumulates at the top extracted from everything unpaid for at the bottom. Whether natural or synthetic fabrics, contamination and human rights violations are unaccounted for by design. When you buy a pair of jeans, tags usually tell you the size, material, and washing advice. They leave out the liters of water used, the pounds of pesticides, the miles traveled, the age or conditions of the worker, etc. Or else, consumers might think twice when they buy. Plastic pollution, similarly, is a universal problem of unprecedented scales that is here to stay. Plastic is everywhere around us, including in us. Bags, sunglasses, pens, cables, chairs, clothing, almost all packaging in cosmetics and toiletries, toothbrushes, sports gear, and shoes just to name a mere few items entirely or partially made of plastic. Invented over 100 years ago, this versatile material has transformed entire industries and one can debate that a type of plastic that lasts decades in use, such as the one found in pipelines, is not as destructive as single-use. However, plastic bags, plastic cutlery, straws, cups, bottles, food wrappers, shipping packages, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam, among many others, remain in use for about 60 seconds. Once their trash journey begins, they release carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and slowly degrade into microplastics, which have been found in fish, table salt, honey, and breast milk, among many others. So-called green plastics are unregulated, require special facilities, and have additives that make them just as toxic. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, kill millions of animals and people each year, and will never benignly degrade. In one form or another, all plastic ever created since 1907 still exists on our planet.

What if schools taught units on the sources of commodities? What if a required class focused on repurposing materials? What if it prompted future consumers to refuse useless stuff as much as possible? What a disaster this would be for the top plastic manufacturers hoping to make 800 billion US dollars by 2027, who also happen to be energy, fertilizer, and electronics producers. Luckily for them, one of the most powerful forces behind policy and legislation in the United States is always on their side: advertisement. A multibillion-dollar industry that uses decades of knowledge on human behavior to hide the beginnings and endings of commodities, to disguise obsolescence, and to lie about the happiness and fulfillment a human will gain if they stop everything and go through with a transaction, no questions asked. It would be a disaster for this “essential” and expanding industry if kids became adults slightly critical of the products they consume.

Jumping back to jails and schools, experts have long studied how design of spaces lead to environments that affect mental health, relationships, creativity, and imaginaries. In my experience, schools in general did seem like prisons. Middle schools in South Florida in particular were extremely repressive. Students wore identical uniforms, were required to line up for everything, and had to walk quietly in straight lines from place to place. They were not allowed to talk or interact while eating in the cafeteria, every move was monitored by school police, and staff would yell, scold, and single out outliers like prison guards. There was no time to simply be, there was not a single minute to play outside, and many teens were depressed and overweight. Given the history of shootings at U.S. schools, control was justified as safety, but the prison model seemed to make students feel unsafe and vulnerable, and instead of protecting them it seemed to make them angry. The buildings were also prison-like, most hallways would lead to a courtyard, all spaces were under surveillance, very minimal nature and sunlight exposure, and there is no way in or out without passing through security. Given that school age children spend most of their time at school and that active shooters are not the only threat they face, higher budget schools, mostly white and affluent, are completely redesigning their buildings. I don’t mean to go into the debate about the failure of No Child Left Behind Act, how standardized test rankings correlate underserved students with the most jail-like schools, how these environments reproduce insecurity, test-score stagnation, and poverty cycles, and how these all relate to the school-to-prison pipeline scheme. I mean to stress how absolutely crucial it is that all schools in the United States be designed to nurture happy, intelligent, curious, and loving adults who care for each other, their communities, and nature. These are, however, radical notions, especially as we face a wave of conservative school reforms in some states today. Nevertheless, the U.S. school system with its prison-model and consumption blindness must be radically transformed. Five decades ago, bathrooms at the mall were segregated and it was radical to question this norm. But normals change, are fluid, and evolve.

Today in the United States, sourcing and minimizing what you consume, and repairing and repurposing are radical acts of care. Radical means root, etymologically, and radical change means tackling a problem from its roots, where it originates, and shaking the foundations of the system where it is embedded. Most children today will become salaried adults, and a few will become rich. Teaching our teens the connections between lifestyles and problems might engender generations of critical consumers that collectively choose to support economies of care. Consumers that ask questions and seek the millions of existing and emerging alternatives all around the world that center life and planetary regeneration. People who do not see themselves as consumers, who embrace their emotional and social nature, and who know themselves and what makes them happy, might question the intentions behind advertisement and challenge a “normal” notion that working hard means buying more. Maybe one day Independence Day celebrations will repair instead of harm. Maybe one day the mall will be a museum with mannequins dressed as teachers and guards, remembering the memory of a time when schools were designed for inmates, kept children from enjoying, in spaces far from nature, taught lessons that led to violence through transactions, and schooled to measure success by obtaining and hoarding. As depicted in a line from the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, “I’m a modern man these days. I find you have to be awfully cruel to be kind. I’m a modern man, you will agree, it’s either you or me.”

This reflection is about education’s role in modern consumption from my personal experiences as a schoolteacher. I acknowledge nuances in consumption patterns based on income, class, access, culture, and values within and between countries. I acknowledge and deeply thank the plurality of educational projects around the world that reject and resist the conventional model and foster hope and strength for radical change. I thank the millions of people, collectives, cooperatives, and initiatives that provide different ways of participating in the economy, who are evidence of different economies themselves, and who work really hard to survive the dominant and oppressive economy. I thank and credit my colleagues throughout my trajectory who have influenced and shaped the ideas portrayed here. As a fellow of Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E), critiquing, deconstructing, and reimagining higher education is a pillar of this project. Working in institutions embedded in hegemonic systems, we challenge notions of profit-driven production, consumption, and reproduction and strive to shape them from within with everything we do. Extending the critique to primary and secondary education and working to heal broken connections before children become adults might give us a better chance at realizing the Ecozoic, a geologic era of recovery theorized by Thomas Berry, characterized by mutually flourishing relations between all planetary systems. I hope to be part of such an extension, where L4E fellows work closely with schools and teachers to expand their curriculums. As a science teacher underpaid and overworked, I would have loved some radical grad students to help me put together brilliant units, modeling awesome alternatives, and developing widened perspectives. L4E’s critical lens to political economies, approach to complexity from systems thinking, encouragement to spread knowledge through creative avenues and activism, and focus on working with communities to learn and leverage alternatives that center life, would offer secondary education opportunities to instill notions of accountability we are lacking today, and lessen the unlearning gap required once adults have internalized consumption as a freedom that has no negative effects.

240 views0 comments


bottom of page