buy our soap

Kermit4I am thinking about Kermit the Frog this morning. Noble, long-suffering, earnest Kermit: puzzled by the ways the world around him makes life more complicated than it is, but committed to working within it anyway. This mix of energy, compassion, and bewilderment is what made him the anchor at the heart of The Muppet Show. He was the John Entwistle that rooted the whole chaotic thing to the ground no matter what blew up in rehearsal, ensuring that it would get to the stage ready for the big show regardless. That’s the core of our love for him. He’s the ultimate order Muppet, and while we love to laugh at the chaos compadres that surround him, we want to live in the world he facilitates.

Kermit’s on my mind because of what my Governor had to say this week about the need to “rebrand” my state’s storied University system, to make it more responsive to market demands and therefore better suited to meet the needs of my state’s young people (or, as he might have it, “emerging workforce”). Kermit had a brush with branding in his second feature film, when he finds himself in a marketing office on Madison Avenue and is asked for the opinion of the “common, ordinary frog on the street” regarding a proposed campaign.

“Ocean Breeze soap: for people who don’t want to to stink.” What do you think? Be frank.
(after a pause): I don’t like it.
(exasperated): you don’t?
Well how about, “Ocean Breeze soap: it’s just like taking an ocean cruise only there’s no boat and you don’t actually go anywhere?”
(pause): Seems a bit long. Have you tried something simple, like: “Ocean Breeze soap will get you clean”?
Wait a minute! Wait just a second! You mean, just say what the product does? No one’s ever tried that! It’s crazy! It’s nuts! We…love it!

UNC faculty (and others, nationally) have been trying to do exactly that – actually explain what we do, its value as it has been demonstrated on a much longer arc than the current market cycle, straightforwardly. It’s increasingly a hard sell, and to some extent, “our jobs are on the line.”

Ten years ago I was writing curriculum for an education nonprofit that worked aggressively to find its place in the market, and we (like so many) consumed Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great,” wherein he details how successful organizations develop their “hedgehog concept” (the thing that, in hard times, they curl up around and protect) at the intersection of what they care about most deeply, what they are equipped to be best in the world at, and what they need to drive their economic engine. He gave us lots of buzzwords (the “Flywheel Effect” stuck with me, and probably dates me when I drop it in conversation with business types). But as I recall he did not talk too much about “brand” as an outcome, as something that needed a place at the table when an organization was making its most essential, even sacred commitments about What It Would Do.

Of course not: Collins was about finding the place where passion, competence, and economic sustainability meet, not about capturing market share through recasting yourself into the mold of whatever the market is perceived as buying this year. In this he echoes my best career advice to any student who asks, and the wisdom of many others. Branding, as Kermit sagely senses, is about identifying the fear and insecurity within the consumer and convincing them – by any means necessary – that what you are selling will alleviate it. Currently, we are terrified as a people of economic insecurity (and other insecurity, but the two tend to co-occur, as I read history). As we have for decades, we displace our fears as a people onto the schools: the places that are supposed to fit our next generation to handle the world’s threats better than we perceive it did us. This fear makes us particularly vulnerable to branding efforts that cast schools as needing to produce graduates with measurable, marketable skills, and makes any entry into the marketplace that does not scan as “hard,” evidence-based,” “workplace-ready” as soft at best or dangerous / unpatriotic / wasteful at worst.

So educators are particularly vulnerable to the language arts of branding now. But it’s still not a fit for what we are doing. “Brand” is perhaps a necessary component of determining what we teach in our schools and universities – the third leg, the “economic engine” part – but it is not sufficient. “Brand” does not exhaust the responsibilities of education: to engage the student in her world, to help her locate herself within it in intersubjective relation with those that share it. These are concerns that include the necessity to support oneself and one’s family, but they do not end there. And the fact that asserting these self-evident facts about education’s role in existence makes me seem out-of-touch with market realities only attests to the success of the branders who have been hard at work to make it so. Their efforts do not change the essential truth.

To be clear, identifying and working with synergies is not necessarily craven. I am aware that my campus is committed to sustainability principles, and thrilled at how that alignment supports my own passion for helping new teachers avoid burnout and develop the capacities necessary to thrive in this work. But sustainability can’t merely be our “brand” at App: if that’s all it is, then we’ll twist what we do every which way to make it fit whatever we think folks are buying. If it represents what we are essentially terrific at, care deeply about, and can get us the financial stability we need to do our work, then full speed ahead. I think it can, and look forward to working on teacher sustainability issues in the context of institutional enthusiasm I anticipate we’ll enjoy.

But work on sustainability in education will inevitably lead to critique of the state and national principles upon which our ideas of teacher education are increasingly being built: policies that seek to eliminate job protections and tie work security and remuneration to student testing outcomes without concomitant enthusiasm for restoring sustainable working conditions, reasonable compensation, retirement and other social supports, commensurate with those accorded other professionals. The “Finland model” is exciting, indeed – wow, look at their results. Are we similarly prepared to select, train, and support our teachers at levels exponentially greater than we currently do? These are the types of questions that honest exploration of teacher sustainability will beg. It’s certainly about individual teacher capacities, but not only that – any more than student achievement is only about skilled teachers and not about the social and cultural milieu in which school happens.

Branding-speak tends to be short-sighted and ultimately cynical, in the “vote your fears not your hopes” sense: it rarely includes discussion of what really matters most in what we do. One would think, it should ultimately include discussion of how to protect the public educational trust from the vagaries of the market, not how to better tie the two together. The fact that the opposite is becoming commonsense in my state is beyond troubling. Like Kermit, I am puzzled by the world I awake to today. Like Kermit, I’ll continue working for change and speaking truth. Hopefully, the show will all come together by curtain time. It always does.

Image from Muppet Wikia, with thanks.

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