Back to Basics: Education First, then Media Education

Dan Laughey, Leeds Metropolitan University

Before addressing issues in media education, we need to ask a more fundamental question: what is education for? According to latter-day governments, education is inextricably linked to market forces and employability demands. Speaking last year at The Times CEO Summit, Education Secretary Michael Gove made his views on education (and media education) loud and clear:

“I do not think that in East Asia they are saying ‘isn’t it terrifying, the massive growth in the number of English students who have achieved mastery of media studies? Their sophisticated interpretation of the plot lines of Hollyoaks will ensure that they have economic power for the next 100 years that we will never be able to beat’” (cited in The Times, 1 July 2010).

The equation is simple enough: education equals economic and political power. Speak about public health in the same terms – and just imagine the outcry!

Of course, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that education warrants immunity from the world of financial gain. But surely there’s something to be said for education as an end in itself, rather than a means to certain political ends. As F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson argued in their classic manifesto on the training of critical awareness, Culture and Environment (1933), education is – above all else – about bettering who we are socially, morally and intellectually. I believe I am a better person because of the prolonged education I enjoyed, more or less continuously, until my mid-twenties. And I’m not the only one who harbours that belief.

For Leavis and Thompson, education provided both a weapon and a tool-kit – a weapon to resist the whims of rampant consumerism; and a tool-kit to discriminate between, on the one hand, the quick-fix sensationalism of mass media and advertising, and on the other, the best of what has been written, shown or performed. Education was the answer to the debt-ridden years of the Depression. The honing of critical skills enabled individuals, families and communities to challenge a prevailing ideology “inducing people to buy what they do not want and to want what they should not buy”. Ring any bells these days?

The necessary key skill, they claimed, was discrimination: “if anything like a worthy idea of satisfactory living is to be saved, [the citizen] must be trained to discriminate and to resist”. Discrimination, in the sense of critical value-judgement, is a mostly forgotten art. The value-free postmodernist turn in media and cultural studies embraced popular culture in all its forms. It was considered perfectly OK, from about the early 1980s onwards, to study washing-powder commercials alongside truly valuable texts like My Beautiful Laundrette. Discrimination became associated with elitist academic snobbery. Discrimination became, in all its meanings, a dirty word.

And yet we discriminate, consciously or otherwise, all the time. We watch a TV drama and later talk about it with friends, along the lines of: did you like it? Was it entertaining? Will you watch the next instalment? It goes without saying that discrimination on the conversational level is not the same thing as the Leavisite-approved kind. Nonetheless, discrimination is a mainstay feature of the lived experience. The whole history of civilisation is a history of discriminating between what is good for humanity – and what is bad and disposable.

Media education needs discrimination more so than any other subject area. Each day the media, in all their multitudinous forms, bombard us with their messages. We need to train our media students in the art of discrimination, so that they can make their own, critically-informed judgements about what is valuable and valueless in the grander commercial scheme of things.

Here I outline five basic principles for an academically-challenging, critical media education. Some media education providers satisfy one or more of these principles quite sufficiently. The challenge is to fulfil them all.

Method: how often do we encourage our students to do focus groups? Or content analysis? Hampered by a compensation culture that causes research ethics committees to impose blanket restrictions on human-participant research of any description, we should nevertheless do the best we can to make students method-diverse. The critical breaking point occurs, in my experience, during final-year dissertations. Mention the words research and analysis, and prepare for a blank response.

Yet the fault lies not necessarily in our students, but in our selves. It appears a whole generation of media students go through school, college and at least two years of higher education without being taught how to do media studies.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule – and two excellent methods textbooks (Deacon et al., Bertrand and Hughes) should be stocked in the libraries of every institution that teaches our subject. But too often the assumption persists that studying media is all about some vague application of textual analysis along the lines of: ‘Read this film: what does it say about class?’

Students need to be equipped with an array of analytical tools: discourse analysis, content analysis, narrative analysis, semiotic analysis, intertextuality, iconography, psychoanalysis, frame analysis, conversation analysis. They also need skills in sampling and selecting. No need for specialist computer software – the best way to learn is to tally up, code, collate and categorise manually. First-hand engagement with data/source materials is – and should always be – part of the research process.

And as well as doing multimodal analysis of, say, a film (exploring characterisation, soundtrack, etc.), students should be encouraged to analyse the multi-mediated environment in which that film operates (how it synergises with publishing, merchandise, magazine and web campaigns, etc.). Media education is less effective in capturing the various mediated interactions emblematic of contemporary cultural consumption/production when it centres attention on just film, or just television, or just magazines, and so on.

No discussion of method, though, can ignore the pragmatic issue of assessment. Researching media constitutes one set of skills; writing about it involves another set entirely. Good written style – a fundamental academic requirement – is almost wholly deficient among the present-day student populace. Liberal voices profess to know the answer: let them blog, vlog, podcast, do anything other than write a properly referenced essay.

Blogging is fine on one account only – as a drafting platform for academic essay-writing. I couldn’t care less whether I’m reading a well-structured essay containing a sustained argument via WordPress, Word doc or any other format. Indeed, the interactivity of blogging can only be a good thing in the long run. But the next time I receive a txtspk s-a ripped from the pages of Wikipedia, then I’ll… who knows, perhaps I’ll start agreeing with Gove.

Internationality: one of the most ambiguous terms I stumble across in textbooks is ‘British Cultural Studies’. It’s British, despite being informed principally by French structuralism (semiology, ideology) and Italian Marxist thought (hegemony). On the other hand, placed in a wider context, there is much justification in distinguishing between the critical tradition of British/European cultural studies and the empirical tradition of North American communication studies.

In recent times, however, some fruitful attempts have been made to utilise the best of both traditions, and, beyond that, to de-westernise media education. Of course, the systematic study of media began in those countries first touched by mass communications, and the work of pioneering media thinkers like Lasswell, Angell and Lippmann should not be forgotten – this work still tells us much about the social and political impact of media old and new.

A truly international media education, then, can evolve – and is evolving – by applying current ideas to new contexts, and adjusting those ideas accordingly. Internationally-recognised media research, however, must always be recognised in our teaching too. Perhaps the most pressing issue remains social and technological exclusion. New media enthusiasts sound off about a networked, user-generated, interconnected, ever-more-equal world of broadband sweetness and mobile delight – a fairy-tale world that does not exist.

For new-media dreamers everywhere I recommend Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (2011) – an excellent attempt to dig beneath the hype and expose the impotence of Internet ‘slacktivism’. Even respected foreign correspondents utter uncritical remarks about ‘the twitter revolution’ in Egypt or ‘the collapse of traditional media’ in Libya – as if one hundred and forty characters triggered the domino effect.

Social media technologies, without doubt, added to the weaponry of those who brought about the recent uprisings in Arab societies. But massive public demonstrations in response to economic and political oppression – um, that had something to do with it too. That’s why internationality in media education, as in all disciplines, is actually about doing case studies of individual nation-states – before comparative analysis can identify transnational trends.

Theory: what I don’t mean by theory is – as it is often conceived – everything that is not production, practice, doing things. Theory should be, without exception, integral to practice; it should inform it and be informed by it. But theory, by which I mean critical and systematic thought, should be the key distinguishing factor between higher and pre-higher education.

This was my (relatively happy) experience of the school-to-university transition. Whereas A-Level English Literature honed close reading and interpretation of texts (Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.), English Studies at degree level introduced me to ‘modern criticism’ – structuralism, Marxism, New Criticism, feminism and so on. The accusation that old theories no longer apply to new media cultures is all too easily thrown.

Semiotics, for instance, a focus of juvenile hostility among the Media Studies 2.0 fraternity, is far too seminal a perspective not to have survived the age of television, or the computer, or the Internet for that matter. The best theories stand the intellectual test of time; all the rest follow 2.0 down the road to oblivion.

History: we need better and more extensive historicising in media education. James Curran’s point about media history being the neglected grandparent of media studies – often thought about but rarely visited – is even truer of teaching than it is of research in our subject. Students need a better understanding of the wider social, political and economic contexts in which media technologies have emerged, evolved and (sometimes) declined.

Those all-too-familiar, historically blinkered clichés about media sexualisation or surveillance society or celebrity culture or 3D-virtual-reality-tv-living stem from profound ignorance about what has gone before. My favourite question to students: when was Nintendo founded? Replies range from about 1950-90. The answer? 1889. Of course, no one was playing Wii Sports in 1889, but the fundamental properties of video games were foreseen and developed long before mass-produced home consoles left the shelves.

As well as espousing the value of media history, we also need to reflect on the history of media studies. No longer in its infancy, there is no longer any excuse not to canonise a set of readings in the subject. Two major factors continue to hinder such a project. First, the use of bibliometrics in research assessment exercises gears scholarly attention predominantly towards up-to-date references and citations. And second, publishers are often reluctant to re-print works that appear – on the face of it – outdated and commercially unviable.

Thankfully, a recent example that goes against this grain was the re-issuing of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy by Penguin in 2009. Hoggart rightly deserves a place in the media/cultural studies canon, as does Williams, McLuhan, Barthes, Baudrillard and several other notables. But even these great intellectuals share in common a vulnerability to the whims of academic fashion. McLuhan, for instance, was almost forgotten about in the years following his death. And yet now, thanks in part to new media developments, McLuhan is back on the agenda – a prime illustration of historically-informed media education in practice.

Discrimination: nonetheless, seminal voices only stand the test of time when other voices – those that go after – reinterpret and re-evaluate their continuing contemporary significance. This is why canonisation should never become, if enough people contribute to the process, an exercise in academic snobbery. Discrimination, as discussed earlier, is the essence of critical judgement. To quote Leavis and Thompson again: “to train critical awareness of the cultural environment is to train in discrimination and to imply positive standards”.

Those positive standards of quality, whether in literature, drama, music, film, television, radio, in the press or on the web, remain constant. Rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator of mass appeal and sentimental melodrama, the best of popular culture captures something original and progressive about the social, political and moral attitudes of its time. That’s why we will always value Hitchcock over Hammer Horror, The Wire over Without a Trace, The Beatles over The Bee Gees, serious over citizen journalism.

To sum up: Method, Internationality, Theory, History, Discrimination. These five basic principles, taken together, put academic excellence back on the media education agenda. For recommended intake, visit my blog:

1 Comment

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  1. Cary Bazalgette says:

    Hooray: an intelligent argument for historical awareness!

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