October 24, 2012

Read the Fine Print! The Boston Book Festival's Creepy Corporate Sponsors

Here lies Public Education
Brought to you by the Pearson corporation

On October 15, 2011, in the early days of the Occupy movement at Dewey Square, a very different sort of encampment briefly occupied another of the city’s public spaces barely a mile away. The tents of the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square were visited by thousands of people that day, but the contrast between the two occupations couldn’t have been more stark: in Dewey Square, a rough-hewn but genuinely grassroots “festival of the oppressed”; at Copley, a top-down, stage-managed, and one-way simulation of “open” culture. 

For those who had read the fine print, however, this would’ve come as no surprise – the Boston Book Festival is a prime example of culture occupied by corporations. And it’s coming back to Copley Square again this October 27.

The BBF’s organizers, including its wealthy founder and president, Deborah Z. Porter, have relied on a number of morally and politically repulsive sponsors over the four years of the event’s existence. In 2009, for example, they warmly embraced the Boston-based State Street Corporation as their “Presenting Sponsor.” This financial investment giant would go on to help Republican Scott Brown take Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010 and then successfully lobby Brown and other senators to gut key provisions from the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, including a $19 billion tax on banks that the senators insisted should be made up in spending cuts. One of those tax-dodging banks was Bank of America, which at the same time was feasting on $45 billion in government bailouts, leading the nation in home foreclosures . . . and enjoying its role in successive years as a Boston Book Festival sponsor.

The festival’s organizers loudly advertise their efforts as being all about “the community” while bringing on sponsors who are notorious community-shredders. Take Verizon: in August 2011, almost 45,000 Verizon workers – including 6000 here in Massachusetts – went out on strike for 2 weeks before having to return to work without a new contract. Verizon was trying to squeeze $1 billion in concessions out of its workers, including cuts in health and retirement benefits, scheduled wage increases, and vacation and sick days. This same company had received over $12 billion in tax subsidies since 2008, hadn't paid a thin dime in taxes over the same period, and continued to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on their top executives. Yet Deborah Z. Porter and the other BBF organizers welcomed Verizon and its ill-gotten dollars into the festival with open arms, allowing the company to burnish its slimy reputation and secure a little brand loyalty among future generations by hosting a children's "StoryPlace."

This year the honor of hosting the kids’ StoryPlace belongs to a different corporate sponsor, the Pearson Foundation.  Less immediately familiar to most people than Verizon, it’s a quieter choice, but in many ways even more troubling. The Foundation is the “non-profit” arm of the UK-based multinational media octopus, Pearson plc., the world’s largest book publisher and provider of education materials and services. The Pearson corporation briefly made headlines last spring when the New York State Education Department had to pull a number of flawed questions from its Pearson-produced math and English exams, including several questions for eighth graders relating to a bizarre story featuring a talking pineapple. 

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Pearson as mere bunglers. They are among the most sophisticated and powerful spearheads in the push for corporate education “reform.” The courageous strike this September by teachers organized in the Chicago Teachers Union shined a bright light on the issues involved in this corporate agenda, one that goes far beyond the imposition of high-stakes testing and standardized curriculums. These so-called reformers, from Chicago’s Democratic mayor and Obama crony Rahm Emanuel to “philanthropic” billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates, actively promote charter schools and voucher programs in order to starve K-12 public schools (especially in poor and minority districts) and gut teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and push for the corporate takeover of teacher certification and assessment at all levels. The ultimate goal is the complete privatization of public education and its restructuring according to “free market” principles of profit and competition. 

Pearson is deeply involved in these efforts. In states from New York to Texas it rakes in millions in taxpayer-funded profit from their monopoly on providing the standardized tests mandated by such legislative swindles as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and of course they fund the lobbyists who push for such laws as well. More recently, by acquiring or partnering with companies that are active members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), they simply write those laws themselves, to be rubber-stamped by willing legislators from the Democratic and Republican parties alike. Pearson and their “reformer” buddies want a system imposed on the 99% that benefits the 1%.

A successful fight-back against this agenda can only come from below, from the active resistance of students, parents, and teachers in our communities. A recent example of such resistance came last spring at the UMass Amherst School of Education, where the director of the high school teacher training program, Barbara Madeloni, and 67 student teachers refused to participate in field testing the newly-developed Teacher Performance Assessment, a program that would put the evaluation and even the licensing of teachers in the hands of the for-profit Pearson. The student teachers won the day and the test was made optional, but the university retaliated by refusing to renew the contract of the widely-respected Dr. Madeloni. The Can’t Be Neutral initiative has been organized to defend Dr. Madeloni and demand her reinstatement; it is part of larger efforts in Massachusetts and across the country to boycott the Pearson juggernaut and draw a line against these attacks.

So what’s a creepy corporation like Pearson doing at the Boston Book Festival? A look at the festival’s Board of Directors gives us a clue – it’s a miniature Who’s Who of the regional plutocracy. Here we have a hedge fund banker, a marketing research CEO, a senior investment officer; people with decades of experience in places like Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs and the bonuses to show for it. Unsurprisingly, some of these 1-percenters have deep ties to education “reform.” Board member Rona Kiley, for example, is the founder of Teach First, the UK-based version of the Teach for America program, which thrusts inexperienced, low-paid teachers into inner-city classrooms as an end-run around teacher seniority and tenure.  While in the UK, Kiley also served as CEO of Academy Sponsors Trust, an organization pushing charter schools on that side of the Atlantic. 

More recently Kiley has been trying to impose this same pro-business agenda on public schools right here in Boston. Working through the misnamed “Stand for Children” organization – which gets funding from the likes of Bain Capital, Walmart, and JP Morgan – Kiley & Co. aggressively lobbied for a ballot initiative that Massachusetts Jobs with Justice called “a corporate-funded attack on public school teachers and the unions that represent them,” one that would “not only hurt our teachers, but also our students and our communities.”

Things get even shadier with board member Nicholas Negroponte, who also happens to be the spouse of the book festival’s president, Deborah Z. Porter. In Negroponte’s case the ties aren’t just to education “reform” but to Pearson itself. Best known for his work at the MIT Media Labs and as founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, Negroponte hides his neoliberal agenda in a gaseous cloud of optimistic techno-futurism and a shower of TED-talk bullet points. Just like the Pearson Foundation – or for that matter like the Boston Book Festival itself – Negroponte’s OLPC project is part of the “non-profit industrial complex” that attempts to put a kinder, gentler face on capitalism’s global rapacity. 

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
Nicholas Negroponte at the MIT Media Labs

The purported mission of OLPC is to give every child in the so-called “developing world” a free laptop, although they are not free for the governments of those nations, who must pay for them at the expense of other priorities. Those laptops often carry Pearson educational software, especially in Latin America. One of Pearson’s publicity firms, Blue Star Strategies LLC,  boasts that Pearson was “a founding partner and sponsor” of One Laptop Per Child from the project’s inception. At last year’s book festival, Nicholas Negroponte appeared in a panel on learning and literacy that was sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and moderated by no less than the Foundation’s president and CEO, Mark Nieker. In the interests of full disclosure the event should have been labeled an infomercial.

The real purpose of OLPC is right in line with Pearson’s own agenda: to “empower” children by sidelining parents, teachers, and local communities, linking young people directly with the “educational” influence of US- and Europe-based multinational corporations. It’s a “non-profit” Trojan Horse for the market penetration of children’s minds. Negroponte’s contempt for teachers is well known; he is on record as saying, for example, “Teachers teach the kids? Give me a break,” and, “In some countries, which I’ll leave unnamed, as many as one-third of the teachers never show up at school. And some show up drunk.” 

Such neo-colonial arrogance will come as no surprise to those who know that the OLPC founder is the brother of John Negroponte, Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras during the bloody Contra war and George W. Bush’s ambassador to occupied Iraq and later Director of National Intelligence. Nicholas has even called his war-criminal, spymaster sibling his “closest adviser” on getting his laptops into foreign nations.

The association of literacy and book culture, on the one hand, and democracy on the other goes back at least to the Enlightenment and even to Gutenberg. Education has become the middle term linking the two. The Boston Book Festival’s organizers rely on these long-standing links between book culture, education, and democracy to create community support for their event even as they cynically betray those associations – and our communities – in their deeds. Pearson and its agenda of corporate education “reform” have absolutely nothing in common with genuine democracy, nor with educating people for democracy. That Pearson should be a book festival sponsor – and moreover the host of its main venue for young children – is a grotesque mockery of everything such an event supposedly stands for.

It is time to demand that the Boston Book Festival drop anti-community sponsors like Pearson. But it’s worth remembering that the festival’s chief organizers are not just well-meaning book lovers who naïvely signed up the first fast-talking corporate reps to appear with open wallets. People like Deborah Z. Porter and Nicholas Negroponte and their friends on the BBF’s board belong to the New England fraction of the 1% – they share the same neoliberal values as the event’s sponsors and they toast their victories at the same parties. They have a track record of helping their slimiest sponsors – State Street, Verizon, and now Pearson – launder their reputations by hosting the kids’ StoryPlace. In the case of Pearson, the BBF’s organizers also work for the same “reform” goal of privatizing public education. Clearly the change of one sponsor to another would only be a facelift on something fundamentally rotten.

It’s also worth considering the quality of the book festival this corporate cash has purchased for four years running. The BBF is organized in a bureaucratic, top-down fashion, for passive consumers rather than active participants. From the speakers and panel topics to the annual “One City One Story” selection, its offerings are utterly conventional, uncontroversial, and pre-masticated – the complete opposite of the effect of truly vital books! And while billed as being for all of Boston, the festival is actually quite limited in its audience, targeting primarily the National Public Radio demographic. It’s little wonder then that many of the BBF’s scheduled presenters turn out to be WBUR announcers, who can be relied on to hypnotize festival-goers in the same tranquilized tones that they call torture “enhanced interrogation.”

So while we make our legitimate demands on a cultural event that is staged in the name of our communities and in our civic spaces, it is also important to think differently, imagine differently, and act differently when it comes to such events. Occupy has reminded us of what collective efforts of self-organization can accomplish, especially when it comes to retaking city space from corporate and state power and returning it to common use. It’s time not only to renew these efforts but extend them as well, into the “spaces” of culture. Another book festival is possible!

This article first appeared at The Boston Occupier.

For a critique of the BBF's "One City One Story" project, go here.

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