The ‘elephant in the room’ is the naming of the beast; how to call what we do? That the study of media in a globalised context is the most important subject in the Humanities and Social Sciences at all levels of education is, I would suggest, beyond question. And it is heartening to see the subject named as such and embedded in the curriculum in various parts of the world. In the UK, however, the term ‘media studies’ (or is it just the added ‘studies’?) is problematic due to a public and indeed, mediated, perception that it is somehow not a ‘proper’ subject – a perception which is similar but more intractable than that which greeted the introduction of English Literature into Universities in the late nineteenth century or sociology and cultural studies amongst others more recently.
When we wrote and named the undergraduate programme at York St John University many years ago, we called it ‘Comparative Media’ because that seemed to describe exactly how we believed the subject should be perceived in relation to, for example, Comparative Literature programmes and also partly because I was rather taken with the writings and thinking of Henry Jenkins, I ‘borrowed’ the name from the programme at MIT (sorry, Henry!). However, those who were neither my elders nor betters but who were certainly above my pay grade determined that the term was confusing to prospective students and so we dropped the ‘Comparative’ bit and became ‘Media’.
I think part of the debate needs to take account of the level at which the subject is being studied; perhaps the term ‘media literacy’ is more appropriate for a school curriculum – alongside other kinds of literacy- but not for a University or College where it might be seen by industry and by the public as vague and superficial. Whilst I would personally and cheerfully identify myself with the movement known as ‘media ecology’, I am equally not sure that this is a sensible and coherent banner under which we can work and which has traction for the public, the Academy and the various cultural and civic institutions we would hope to contribute to. This would also go for other contemporary funky descriptive mashups – media ‘archaeology’, media ‘geography’, and so on – all of them exciting and academically valid but not wise choices for the naming of university awards.
I have always considered that what I do – media education – is, to appropriate Clausewitz on war, “an extension of politics by other means”. Our job is not to act as cheerleaders for new communication technologies; the job is simply (when I say ‘simply’…) concerned with the importance of understanding how these new technologies change the way we live, understand the world and behave towards each other. And, I would hope, to use these understandings to somehow contribute to making the world a better place as well as providing a set of invaluable critical and analytical skills – call it ‘literacy’ – for a modern generation. The old fashioned and tricky subjects of ‘ideology’ and power are clearly central to this.
In The World Ahead Frederica Mayor and Jerome Binde of UNESCO’s Analysis and Forecasting Office, write – “A study of functional illiterates by the linguist Alain Bentolila reveals that the conversation of young functional illiterates contains scarcely 0.5% of abstract words – ‘a shortcoming that leaves them terribly helpless against the imposition of any concept presented as a unique and universal explanatory principle’ (italics mine)” (2001: 314). In other words, illiteracy in language use makes people vulnerable and powerless and politically susceptible to forms of persuasion. Is it too fanciful to suggest that a similar illiteracy in media competence – the reading of them in terms of ideologies, symbolic power and preferred meanings – can also render people helpless and politically naïve..?
Neil Postman, in discussing the differing dystopian visions offered by Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, wrote – “Contrary to popular belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think (…) Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be kept from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture”. (1987: vii)
Well. However, if a media education can provide modern citizens with a critical understanding of media complexity and ambiguity at the same time as making us aware of the social, cultural and cognitive effects of the actual technologies themselves, perhaps that same understanding can be used to affect other behaviours. The practice of ‘education-entertainment’, of using appropriate media forms and technologies to positively change attitudes and behaviours towards socially desirable ends –particularly in the developing world and especially around such issues as sexual health, domestic violence, adult literacy, ecology, healthcare and so on – builds upon a sophisticated understanding of media production and consumption and demonstrates how media education in our universities and schools might be considered. The work of the Population Media Centre (amongst others) in which traditional forms of popular narrative in a variety of media forms (radio, tele-novelas, comic strips etc.) attempt to positively influence the behaviours of targeted cultural groupings, is a good example of this. Similarly, if media education is to mean anything, it must address the inequalities of access to new technologies in a global sense as well as the profound understanding that new technologies are firmly rooted and embedded in networks and lived experiences of power and poverty; technologies only have meaning in so far as they affect the lived experience of the global population – you can’t eat a BlackBerry.
It might also be that, in addition to providing students and pupils with the critical tools to explore the media landscape without becoming confused or controlled, and apart from using media to affect beneficial change, a media education should also encourage us to evaluate and perhaps radically disturb our very relationship to communication technologies and the information or experiences they mediate. It might just be that initiatives such as The Slow Media Manifesto or the Long Now Foundation – both in very different ways – can encourage us to think about the levels of our engagement with the media world and whether we want to re-negotiate these. Postman again: “…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the centre of education” (1987 : 168) Indeed.
At York St John University we have been working on a ‘Media Manifesto’ of our own with some of our students, partly as a way of articulating initial preconceptions about the subject, its value and how it should be studied but perhaps more importantly as a way of attempting some sort of mission statement as to what media education involves and what it hopes to achieve. In many ways, this has been a more exciting and rewarding way of considering the subject than the required and traditional forced march through the curriculum; it makes dialogue and discussion possible without any pre-conceived aims, outcomes or assessments and, in attempting to at least describe the animal and what the point of it is, we hope to reach some understanding of how we should live with it, whether we like it and maybe and finally what we should call it.
The Long Now Foundation – http://longnow.org/
Mayor, F. and Binde, J. (2001) The World Ahead: Our Future in the Making Zed Books Ltd
Postman, N. (1987) Amusing Ourselves To Death Methuen
Slow Media Manifesto – http://en.slow-media.net/manifesto