The Nation's Pulse

Gumming Up the Classroom

We prefer shortcuts to honest effort.

By 10.10.11

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As our youngsters continue to be outscored by Asians and Europeans in basic subjects like math and reading, some middle school teachers are resorting to a seemingly desperate measure -- allowing chewing gum in the classroom as a performance enhancer.

Chewing our way to better grades? Is this the end of civilization I keep hearing about?

In my youth, gum was banned from the classroom and any girl chewing gum on the playground was considered cheap, low, and dangerous to know.

A friend of mine backs me up. "I rather think gum chewing would lower the IQ," he said recently over lunch. "The chewer gets that vacant look in the eye, like ruminants in the farmyard."

Now a mother in the Boston suburbs tells me her children are openly encouraged to try gum as a way of gaining academic edge, specifically improving concentration and memory skills. Some teachers supply the gum and pass it around before the annual all-important MCAS test, the local version of the federal No Child Left Behind program that measures the school's performance -- the test that tests the teachers. Some nervous self-interest there perhaps?

But is there any truth to gum's alleged magical qualities? For decades, gum manufacturers have been funding dubious health research to try to prove it -- then use the results to sell more gum. Something called the Wrigley Science Institute dispenses grants to impoverished academics looking for well-paid projects that are not too complicated.

Junk science is of course nothing new. To my shame, I once ran a Burson-Marsteller program to spread the word for Philip Morris that second-hand smoke was less harmful than drinking tap water. It isn't.

"The only reason to fund this gum research is to sell more gum," one nutritionist told CNN recently.

Somehow this attempt to gain edge through gum seems to fit our era of instant gratification and our search for shortcuts as opposed to actual effort.

It is instructive to look abroad and note that Europeans and Asians do not need to chew for performance, nor are they influenced by the large advertising budgets of the gum makers. Singapore banned chewing gum and bubble gum from its territory for 12 years yet their children were always among the highest achievers. Under pressure from U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush plus a gaggle of lobbyists, Singapore has now agreed to allow gum to be imported, but only medicinal varieties and made available only in pharmacies that require the purchaser's ID. The Wrigley people who pressed for this change are delighted.

American children can hardly escape the gum and breath-freshener culture spread by B-list celebrities such as Larry King in ubiquitous television commercials. The King, alongside his seventh wife Shawn Southwick, warns young and old alike to do something about their halitosis. Here we have another depressing fact in Larry's long list – he has bad breath.

As if the advertisers were not enough, we now face the elongated climax of the baseball season on television featuring role model players in their pajamas blowing pink bubbles as they wait for something to happen on the field. One of the Arizona Diamondbacks, fresh out of bubble gum when he needed it, was caught on TV chewing on the crucifix he wears around his neck for good luck. It failed him this time. The Brewers went on to the National League playoffs.

But in the gum-chewing world, it was the recently sacked Red Sox manager Terry Francona who wins. Boston was aghast when an alert cameraman caught him rolling a wadge of double-bubble around a tobacco chaw and stuffing it in his mouth. The camera came back to him during the game for an update and observed him working the mess all the way down to his thrapple.

"I knew Terry was going to blow it," said my lunch companion, "and he did."

Boston will try again next year but without Terry's bubblegum.

We may hope that gum will also disappear from our schools as teachers realize they have been misled by public relations and advertising.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.