The Case for Media Education

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Over 2,300 years ago, Plato wrote that a "sound education consists in training people to find pleasure and pain in the right objects." But though most Americans now spend half their leisure time watching television and film, very few schools devote formal attention to helping students become more sophisticated media consumers.

Schools do devote time to teaching students about poetry and short stories, but in reality, once they graduate, very few people will spend much time with these forms. This is not to say that we shouldn't continue to introduce students to poetry and short stories--we should--but that we do not spend time helping students similarly appreciate, interpret, and analyze the mass media that surround them is nothing short of educational neglect.

There are those who will scoff at the idea of training people to become better television viewers. But if most children are going to continue to watch 1,000 hours of television every year of their young lives, and 1,000 hours every year for the rest of their adult lives, isn't it a mistake for them not to receive formal media education?

Since the early 1970's, a variety of media-education, or media-literacy, curricula have been developed, and research and experience show that such curricula can be effective. Indeed, media education is now well established in regions of Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia and is under development in many European countries.

What needs to be taught in media-education courses? One focus for older students is to have them think about how and why the media reflect their society and certain groups of people in particular ways. But much more basically, we need to tie media-analysis skills to critical-thinking curricula. And we need to show students how the classical techniques of persuasion and propaganda are employed in contemporary media.

One of the ways to sensitize students to the grammar and syntax of film and television, and help turn them into more critical viewers, is to have them learn how to tell their own stories. With the growing availability of video cameras and the extremely low cost of videotape, this can be done more readily than ever before. Even if cameras aren't available, students can also learn by "storyboarding" scenes and writing scripts.

But though media education is important, reading and writing must remain fundamental--we don't want to graduate students who can use a camera but who can't write or think. One way to integrate the two is to emphasize writing skills in students' scripts and in their critical reviews of films and TV programs. And one of the ways to increase students' interest in literature is to help them recognize that many of the same storytelling techniques used in the classics are also used in the popular programs and films with which they are already familiar. Students already respond to foreshadowing in the popular television series ''The Wonder Years"; they are simply unaware that foreshadowing is a deliberate technique used to heighten suspense, drama, and irony.

If teachers ardently believe that the literary techniques of Twain and Dickens are vastly superior to those used in television and film, they should be able to communicate why this is so. Such comparisons will help students appreciate the intricacies and greatness of the traditional classics.

But teachers need to recognize that there are also film classics (and even a few television classics) that are artistic works of unassailable quality, subtlety, and power. In fact, given the proclivities of contemporary students and adults, students may well profit as much--or more--from serious instruction in the complexity of Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" and the masterful coherence of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" as from instruction in Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we jettison Twain and Dickens. I am saying that other important modes of storytelling have developed and that they also deserve formal study in our schools.

Indeed, one of the obstacles to more rapid acceptance of media education is that some administrators remain convinced that the only area appropriate for formal study in English classes is literature. But there can be little question that as the electronic media age, the patina of time alone will make their formal study increasingly acceptable to educational traditionalists. This is why I believe that we can expect media education to become commonplace by the middle of the next century, if not before. By the year 2050, film will have just celebrated its 150th birthday and television will be over 100 years old.

But though I believe media education will eventually come on line in the United States, it's not going to be achieved simply. The problem made itself abundantly clear recently when a woman called me wishing to pursue graduate training to teach media literacy in the public schools. I had to tell her that there were only a handful of schools where she could ply her trade and that she might want to consider pursuing an English credential. I also told her that she might have to create her own program of study as I knew of no formal program in the United States that could provide the focused training she sought.

To move things along, we need committed teachers to push for media curricula, but we also need educational leaders to come to recognize that the way we communicate as a society has changed enough in this century that traditional training in literature and print communication is no longer sufficient by itself.

Even with the obstacles, however, there is no question that the media-education movement is growing. Last July, 100 delegates from 40 countries met in France at a UNESCO-sponsored conference to discuss ways to enhance media education around the world. And this past June, the 38,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics formally recommended that parents, teachers, and pediatricians work to promote "critical television-viewing skills among children."

For those serious about educational reform, Canada's largest province, Ontario, can serve as a model. In 1987, Ontario adopted mandatory media-literacy training in over 5,000 schools for all students in grades 7-12. In so doing, Ontario became the first North American educational jurisdiction to require formal media education.

But ultimately, even in Ontario, students only receive the equivalent of one year's media-literacy course over six years. To my mind, some form of media education should begin in the earliest primary grades. Children need help in understanding the media in their most impressionable years every bit as much as when they are older.

Most especially, we want to encourage students to develop their own modes of criticism and interpretation. Just as there is no single, correct way to interpret all of literature, there is no single, correct way to interpret all of television or film. The goal of media education should be to provide a grounding upon which students can better build their own idiosyncratic approaches.

Most fundamentally, we need to encourage our nation's future voters and leaders to take the media seriously, to understand where media messages come from, and why messages are presented as they are and to what effect. As the author Charles Brightbill wrote in 1960, "The future will belong not only to the educated, but to those who have been educated to use leisure wisely."

Vol. 10, Issue 24, Page 27

Published in Print: March 6, 1991, as The Case for Media Education
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