Monday, September 12, 2016

The New Mascot

Consider Pitbull.

The rappish artiste and modern poet ("Face down, booty up, that's the way we like to- what?!") has greeted the new school year with his third charter school. 

Pitbull has tried to make something out of the nickname he was tagged with once-- "Mr. Education"-- but it hasn't really caught on. But it hasn't stuck, perhaps because Pitbull's actual connection with the school is described as "nebulous." The Washington Post once reported that his role was "coming up with different ways to get people involved."

Like Arthur Ashe and Deion Sanders, Pitbull is the new accessory, necessary for the school-as-commercial-enterprise era. We could them a spokespersons or brand ambassadors, but basically they're a whole new kind of school mascot.

"Mr. Matthews, have you cut my check yet?"

School mascots are an odd feature of the school landscape. My own school, around a century ago, had a mascot based on a town motto. See, even longer ago, a state politician had tried to mock our civic pride by calling us "The Nursery of Great Men," but instead of acting mocked, we just picked it up and ran with it. Which is how it ended up that our sports teams, for many years, called themselves the Fighting Nurserymen. Lord knows I have often wished we stuck with that mascot concept, but only slightly less than a century ago, we traded Nurserymen for Knights, a completely conventional mascot that, like most, has nothing in particular to do with our school or our community.

But come to a game and you'll see our student volunteer in a knight costume, exhorting the crowd to get excited (this, it must be said, is an improvement over the attempt a few decades ago to use a mascot mounted on a live horse-- that did not end so well). Our knight does what a mascot is supposed to do-- provide a focal point for spirit, excitement, and investment in the school, as well as providing a literal peg on which to hang the metaphorical identity of the school itself (I keep waiting for some high school to choose as its mascot "Existential Angst," but people seem to prefer something that can provide actual physical embodiment).

Commercial brands have long (though not as long as schools) seen the value in a brand ambassador, a human-ish embodiment of the qualities that the brand wants to be associated with, from a Jolly Green Giant to a handsome cowboy totally not dying from lung cancer to a talking tiger. School mascots benefit from long history (generations of folks have proudly been Franklin Knights) while brand spokespersons benefit from tons of advertising.

Commercial school businesses have tried to grab some combo-- find somebody who is already famous for something and who would like a nice tax write-off, maybe even like to feel as if they're doing something For The Chidren, and put them out there to sell a marketing pitch that boils down to roughly, "Hey look! Our school is associated with a reasonably famous person, whereas that public school just has teachers and books and stuff. Don't you want to come to a school connected to someone famous?!"

There are public schools that have their own sorts of celebrity spokespersons, such as famous-ish alumni or some local version of Mr. Feeney. Some school ventures have tried building their own, from Ron Clark using his students as back-up dancers to the endless press-mongering of a certain former DC schools chief. But if we sink further into the world of free market education, schools are going to have to come up with better (and more costly) marketing plans, complete with celebrity spokesmascots. Will the job be another part of teachers' responsibilities, or will we hire one less teacher so we can afford the marketing plan. What a wonderful new world of free market education. Face down, booty up. What?

1 comment:

  1. Hollister California School District has a mascot called the Haybalers. Which comes with a red line under it as I type since haybaler is not a word. Hay Baler is a word. It is a rural district so the moniker fits but the mispelling is very ironic for a school district.