Ending is Better than Mending

Schooling and Commercialism

By Susan Wight

Early Australian society needed, and indeed the land itself demanded, that people be frugal, self-sacrificing and hard-working. This was a time when there was nothing to spare. Possessions were few and were confined to absolute necessities. In order to survive people had to be resourceful and independent – they had to make and do for themselves. Even early in the twentieth century it was common to see a faded label on the back of boys’ shirts made from used flour bags.

Frugality was reflected in Australian schools where children meticulously copied phrases such as “Mending is better than ending” for writing practice and everything was mended, reused and recycled as much as possible. The curriculum for girls taught them how to ‘make ends meet’ as wives and mothers in their own homes. They learnt how to make (and mend) useful garments, how to make jam, and pickle vegetables.

We now live in a consumer society which needs people to be consumers – to endlessly consume products of questionable necessity. People must be discouraged from making or producing anything themselves which might save money. Making and producing things which require endless supplies is of course permissible.

Dual incomes help finance the endless expenditure of today’s consumer lifestyle and even stay-at-home mums are encouraged to believe they need ‘time out’ from mothering. This serves a dual purpose of boosting the child-care industry and freeing mothers for more shopping time.

Shopping itself is promoted as a leisure activity. Rather than being encouraged to ‘go without’, there is a constant message to ‘consume because you deserve it.’ We must be constantly dissatisfied and disappointed with what we have so that we will purchase goods which promise to improve our looks, promote our happiness, make life easier and so on. For society’s sake we must buy more, buy different…but keep buying. Essentially what the advertising industry is selling is discontent. This is an endless loop as a popular restorative for stress is called ‘retail therapy’.

Household goods purchased in the first half of last century could reasonably be expected to last a lifetime. Most of the same goods purchased today have a life expectancy of less than ten years. Companies carefully calculate exactly how long a product needs to last so that a customer will be satisfied enough to buy another of the same brand. In addition, appliances all come with their workings carefully enclosed and warnings that attempting to repair them will void your warranty. Products are designed to wear out or become too expensive to repair. We are encouraged to throw them out and buy a new one. As well as this ‘planned obsolescence’, there is also the issue of perceived obsolescence whereby advertising persuades us to believe something needs updating, even though it works perfectly well.

We are now faced with the situation that George Orwell foresaw in 1984 with the reversal of the proverb to read “Ending is better than mending”. This situation is not only reflected in our current schooling industry but has actually been heavily influenced by it. In Cultural Anthropology, Marvin Harris explains that every state maintains its status quo by a system of laws and punishments but also seeks to prevent discontent by employing specialists who perform ideological services in support of the status quo.

The main thought control apparatus of pre-industrial states consisted of magico-religious institutions which kept the majority of people in their place. The pomp and ceremony associated with royalty has always encouraged conformity by inviting people to identify with the governing elite and to enjoy vicariously the pomp of state occasions.

“Compulsory universal education is another powerful modern means of thought control. Teachers and schools serve the instrumental needs of complex industrial civilizations by training each generation to provide skills and services necessary for survival and well-being. But schools also teach civics, history, citizenship, and social studies. These subjects are loaded with implicit or explicit assumptions about culture, people, and nature that favour the status quo.”

Schools, then, are a form of mind-control and any system which seeks to control minds does so for the advantage of those who implemented it. Modern schooling originates from the Prussian system. The agenda there was to produce obedient soldiers after Prussia’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of Napoleon. It was designed as an effective mind-control method to churn out soldiers who would die for their country. Wealthy industrialists in America were so impressed with the efficiency of the Prussian system that they became the main protagonists for its successful introduction in America. Their agenda was slightly different.

John Taylor Gatto points out that the connection between schooling and commercialism is no accident. In Against School he says these industrialists clearly understood that such a system would be

“useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers… There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to favour the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most [people] considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume non-stop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modern era – marketing.”

The Prussian style of schooling spread throughout the Western world but, you might argue, that is all history now and irrelevant to today’s schooling.

However, what kind of society would continue to perpetuate this system? Only one whose needs are being adequately served by it. What the economy needs is people who think and react alike. School trains people to do this. Our school system, largely copied from America, was always intended to turn out workers and consumers and it does this very well.

The escalation of consumerism has caused the emphasis in schooling to shift from teaching work habits to teaching consumption habits. The hidden curriculum of schooling teaches children to ‘fit in’, to follow the crowd, to conform and not to dare to be different. The resultant peer pressure and group dynamics dictate what people will be interested in, covet and should purchase or nag their parents for. Marketing experts now know that if they can make a product appeal to children, the children’s own ‘nagging power’ will sell the product as many time-poor parents buy products for their children to appease their own guilt about the lack of time they spend together. Amongst other things, school conditions kids to sit still and receive information. This makes them good TV viewers and therefore advertisement absorbers and the average child views 350,000 advertisements by the age of fifteen.

Consumerism is now a major part of schooling. Each year students are required to buy an ever-growing quantity of consumables for school; consumables which many parents find are brought home unused (or with the first couple of pages used) at the end of the year. Text books are set or revised every couple of years so that the old ones become outdated. This helps to train people into thinking that old things need to be replaced just to ‘keep up to date’. Changes are continually being made to programs, policies, curriculum and resources to ensure that people get the message that ‘new is better.’ Big companies are keen to do sponsorship deals with schools and, failing that, are quick to supply rulers, pencil cases, sports equipment, etc for special events – anything that can have their logo on it, as research indicates that product loyalty is promoted by early exposure to logos.

A Harper’s Magazine summed up the situation well in 2000 when it concluded that the poor condition of public schools was “neither an accident nor a mistake” and that the problems of “abbreviated attention spans”, “diminished capacity to think” and the reading crisis in schools actually sustain the profits of the credit-card industry and commercialism. “To learn to read is to learn to think, possibly to discover the strength and freedom of one’s own mind. Not a discovery that the consumer society wishes too many of its customers to make.”


  • Kociumbas, Jan: Australian Childhood, A History. Allen and Unwin 1997
  • Groundwater Smith, Ewing & Le Carnu Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas www.thomsonlearning.com.au
  • Gatto, John Taylor, Against School
  • Barcan, Alan, A Short History of Education in New South Wales Martindale Press Pty Ltd 1965
  • Molnar, Alex School Commercialism, 2013
  • Failure of American Public Education, Harpers Magazine 2000
  • Harris, Marvin, Cultural anthropology, HarperCollins College 1995
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