As media educators, we have spent so long campaigning for our field that most of us could probably rehearse the basic rationale in our sleep. Why should we be teaching young people about the media? Well, most of us would probably begin with assertions about the statistical significance of the media in children’s lives. Back in 1980, Len Masterman pointed out that children were spending more time watching television than they were spending in school – and in fact that claim was probably true twenty years earlier. Surveys repeatedly show that, in most industrialised countries, children now spend significantly more time engaging with the media than on any other activity apart from sleeping. This in itself might appear to suffice, at least if we believe that schooling ought to be relevant to children’s lives outside school.
However, we might want to go on to make some broader claims about the economic, social and cultural importance of the media in modern societies. The media are major industries, generating profit and employment; they provide us with most of our information about the political process; and they offer us ideas, images and representations (both factual and fictional) that inevitably inform and shape our view of reality. The media are the major contemporary means of cultural expression and communication: to become an active participant in public life necessarily involves making use of the modern media. The media, it is argued, have now taken the place of the family, the church and the school as the major socialising influence in contemporary society.
Of course, there are some problems with these kinds of claims. There is a danger here of implying that the media are all-powerful, or that they necessarily promote a singular and consistent view of the world. The notion that the media ‘socialise’ or ‘influence’ children can easily slide over into a view of children as passive recipients of media effects – and the idea that it is the responsibility of educators somehow to resist those effects. Researchers – and indeed many media teachers – have spent considerable effort over the years in challenging such simplistic accounts of media influence.
Yet we can suggest that the media are a centrally important fact of modern life without implying that people are somehow inevitably enslaved or ideologically mesmerised by them. The media are now ubiquitous and unavoidable. They are embedded in the textures and routines of everyday life, and they provide many of the ‘symbolic resources’ we use to conduct and interpret our relationships and to define our identities. As Roger Silverstone has argued, the media are now ‘at the core of experience, at the heart of our capacity or incapacity to make sense of the world in which we live’. And, as he suggests, it is for this reason that we should study them.
From my perspective, all these arguments are truisms. They seem so self-evident that they run the risk of banality. However, we should beware of taking them for granted – particularly at a point where public attacks on the teaching of Media Studies in schools are enjoying one of their periodic resurgences. Our current education minister is well-known for his opposition to so-called ‘soft’ subjects, and for his enthusiasm for the prehistoric educational philosophy of Matthew Arnold. Once again, Media Studies seems to have become a shorthand for the ‘dumbing down’ that is apparently afflicting our education system. It is, hilariously, a Mickey Mouse subject – and yet it is also condemned for being insufficiently vocational. Of course, we can challenge these arguments on the grounds of their inaccuracy and inconsistency, and the narrow-minded prejudices on which they based. But we also need to have more positive arguments as well.
However, arguments in favour of media education tend to be framed within the public debate in quite limited ways. If people can see a purpose for media education, they often conceive of it in fundamentally protectionist terms. Indeed, there is a long history of such protectionism, in which educators have been urged to confront the harmful and damaging nature of children’s relationships with media. In the UK, this concern has historically tended to focus on the media’s apparent lack of cultural value, as compared with the ‘classics’ of great art or literature, and (more recently) on the false attitudes or ideologies they are seen to promote. In the United States, by contrast, media education is often seen as a means of counteracting particular moral values or forms of undesirable behaviour – typically relating to drugs, sex and violence, and most recently obesity. Teach children to be critical of media representations of these things, and (so the argument goes) they will be free of them.
These kinds of arguments have resurfaced recently in the context of debates about internet safety, and the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. Indeed, it’s notable that the high-level official endorsement of media education (or rather ‘media literacy’) in the UK in recent years has come not from educational policy-makers, but from Ofcom, the media regulator. Ofcom’s own position is not protectionist, but the ways in which the argument for media literacy is framed within the public debate – and the functions it serves – certainly tend to present it as a matter of people learning to protect themselves from ‘harmful’ content.
In response to these arguments, we do still need to defend media education from its ignorant and misguided critics. Media literacy education is no more about protecting children from harmful media than literacy education is about protecting them from harmful books. It is not a covert means of censorship, or a form of behaviour modification. It does not seek to teach children what is wrong with popular culture, or to lead them on to ‘better things’. It does not seek to neutralise the pleasures of popular culture through rationalistic analysis. Nor indeed is it an excuse for under-achieving kids to sit about watching telly or mucking about with computers.
Yet in addition to rejecting the negatives, we also need to assert the positives – and in ways that go beyond the bland truisms with which I began. Personally, I find this hard – and for this reason I am probably one of the world’s worst manifesto writers. I have always felt that media education suffers from an excess of grandiose rhetoric. We have all heard far too many assertions about how media education can change the world, save democracy or empower the powerless. As a classroom teacher, I was always painfully aware of the gap between this sort of rhetoric and the messy realities of my own practice (and I don’t think that was just about being a useless teacher). While it can be morale-boosting in the short term, this overblown rhetoric does not serve teachers very well: we need to cast a more dispassionate eye on what really happens in the classroom, however awkward or even painful that might feel.
In my view, we can make the case much more effectively by showing in concrete ways what and how children can learn about media. Most of the critics of media education do not have even the faintest idea of what it actually looks like in practice. Media education can be intellectually challenging; it can involve intense and rigorous forms of creativity; and it can engage learners in ways that many other school subjects do not. Even experienced teachers can be positively surprised by the quality and sophistication of students’ thinking as they engage in media education activities – and by the forms of oral and written work that result from it. Like any other school subject, media education can also be undemanding and boring, and it can result in pointless ‘busywork’. I am not calling here for rose-tinted accounts of ‘good practice’, of the kind that most teachers tend to find somewhat implausible. Rather, we need to come up with evidence that media education actually works – that it can engage, challenge and motivate young people, as well as enabling them to understand and to participate more fully in the media culture that surrounds them.
We are living at a time of significant cultural change. In many Western countries, the shift towards a ‘post-industrial’ consumer society has destabilised existing patterns of employment, settlement and social life. Established social institutions, the rules of conduct of civil society and traditional conceptions of citizenship are increasingly being called into question. The relations between the global and the local are being profoundly reconfigured; and the majority of young people today are growing up in increasingly heterogeneous, multicultural societies, in which very different conceptions of morality and very different cultural traditions exist side-by-side. However one interprets these phenomena, there is little doubt about the central role of the media – and of consumer culture more broadly – in the continuing transformation of modern societies. The proliferation of media technologies, the commercialisation and globalisation of media markets, the fragmentation of mass audiences and the rise of ‘interactivity’ are all fundamentally changing young people’s everyday social experiences. In this context, it is hard to imagine a more imperative issue for education to address.