Not ‘philosophy of media education’, but ‘media education as philosophy’

Dr Mark Readman, Lecturer in Media and Education, The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice

This manifesto forum is encouraging us to ask questions about what media education is for, and how it is constituted, as well as making us question the distinctions and similarities between categories such as media education, media studies and media literacy. In this sense it is a philosophical project and, as such, it has caused me to reflect upon my own ‘philosophy’ of media education and to try to articulate a growing sense that media education should, in itself, be philosophical. This ‘sense’ hasn’t come from nowhere, of course, so reflecting on my own history has been a starting point.

I’ve done my share of proselytising about media education in the past, mainly in the FE sector, and I can see now that I quite relished being the underdog in the staff room – it gave me licence to be oppositional and to tease psychology teachers about behaviourist research. And I can identify in my current thinking a retention of that desire to be oppositional – a pleasure in the perverse.

When I started teaching media studies the last thing I wanted for my students was a job in the media; the media were characterised by venality, mendacity and cynicism – why would you want to work for them? The texts that had value for me were reflexive, counter-cultural and oppositional (except EastEnders, which I admitted watching as a guilty pleasure) and I bored a lot of students. But felt strongly that media education shouldn’t be the same as media ‘training’, so I really struggled to rationalise what I was doing when I found myself running a BTEC National Diploma course, for which the index of success was the progression into media employment. Questions of power were irrelevant in this programme, ‘ideology’ was something for politics courses and assessment was (according to a senior assessor) as unproblematic as identifying competence in a driving test. Even now, despite working in a media school which produces many graduates who gain a foothold in the industry, I find it hard to celebrate the acquisition of a researcher’s job on Snog, Marry, Avoid. (A comment, of course, which is dependent upon assumptions about a hierarchy of labour and a hierarchy of taste; would I be more likely to celebrate a student becoming a director on Misfits? Yes. And I did.)

So what’s my problem? Over the past few years I’ve had the luxury of thinking about concepts, and the distinction between instrumental and philosophical approaches has emerged as a crucial one for me. And I think that education should be, fundamentally, philosophical, by which I mean driven by questions about knowledge, power and being. Given that the media are constitutive of knowledge, power and being it seems reasonable to argue that media education should be philosophical.

This manifesto features much discussion about the philosophy of media education – what it is for, what it should do and how we should do it. But this treats it as if it were a ‘thing’ with a discrete (albeit blurred and deformed) identity and the project seems to be to sharpen its edges, reinforce its boundaries and bring it into focus. An alternative might be to treat media texts, practices and interactions as exemplifications of negotiations, constructions and contradictions – to do philosophy as media education. I know that in ‘Media Studies’ this already happens to a degree, but often inconsistently and incoherently; I have, in the past for example, encouraged students to question the construction of knowledge and ‘truth’ in news and then, barely acknowledging the irony, handed out news articles that explain ‘convergence’. Similarly, I’ve put ‘auteurism’ on trial and then applauded student video work that replicates the ‘authorial signature’ of a ‘great director’. Reflecting on my intellectual ‘bad faith’ has forced me to try to imagine a more coherent way of engaging with the media.

Maybe it isn’t possible to resolve the tension between instrumental and philosophical approaches, but an acknowledgement of their foundations would be a start. This would involve students in a meta-discourse about the ways in which their educational experiences are produced, how their production of ‘valid media knowledge’ is conditioned and regulated. The recent claims that students are now technological experts (which sometimes seems to rationalise an abnegation of responsibility) could be examined in this context, and the nature, value and utility of such expertise could be assessed and its performative, dynamic function in the classroom addressed.

This would also mean tackling the seductive rhetoric about collaboration, technology and creativity which are offered as self-evident ‘good things’ in recent discussions of education in general and media education in particular. A philosophical approach would necessitate an engagement with the foundations of such concepts and the ways in which they are mobilised in the service of particular agendas. In education policy, for example, ‘creativity’ is a particularly promiscuous signifier and has lent itself to claims about democracy, aspiration, economic well-being, STEM subjects and the arts, to the extent that it has become, as Gottfried Wagner puts it “a beloved non-word”. In the past decade or so, in this context, we can see how ‘creativity’ has been manifested rather chaotically as a desirable ‘otherness’ in All Our Futures (the Robinson Report) and, most recently, pressed into service by Ofsted as a label for a set of ‘inventive’ activities designed to realise National Curriculum goals.

Given (as I would argue) the simultaneous emptiness and plenitude of the word ‘creativity’, its presence as an assessment term in media specifications should elicit critical scrutiny and debate, and assessors should be prepared to explain what aspects of work, student or process are being judged and what metrics are being used. There is a notable contrast between the impassioned advocacy of creativity in education and the coherence of the proposed means of assessment; it is significant that the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ ‘Creative Thinking Value Rubric’ prescribes evidence of problem solving, rather than physical production, thus anchoring the term in such a way as to make more amenable to accountable judgements.

I am not opposed to students (or anyone else) making things, but feel that we need to create the conditions for them to engage critically with the ways in which sense is made of these productive practices. This means interrogating the claims that are made about their ‘creativity’, for example, and involving them in this conversation – identifying when it is being used to refer to an individual’s disposition or the qualities of a piece of work or, most interestingly, how particular conditions obtain which make it attributable to people. In other words, how and when do these ‘stories’ get told? And what’s at stake in them?

Admittedly this approach doesn’t sound like loads of fun or promise happiness (whatever that means), but this philosophical approach might encourage students to not take anything for granted, to question the foundations of knowledge, and to see truth as always inevitably contingent.

I don’t know how workable this is, except perhaps at a local level where some individual teachers are already ‘doing’ media education as philosophy, and, like some other contributors here, I’m starting to question whether or not media education should be a ‘thing’ in its own right. The curriculum is constituted by a range of ‘subjects’ which tend to be defined by their objects of study and, in our field, this has led to the fetishisation of texts, ‘artists’ and technology. So perhaps we need to break away from the objects and reconfigure an approach that is based on principles of enquiry, scepticism and challenge.

And with that I realise that my position perhaps hasn’t changed all that much in the last twenty years.

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  1. Steve Connolly says:

    I believe that the connection between Media Studies and Philosphy is going to become an absolutely crucial area of inquiry for us all involved in media education over the next few years. I am currently writing an article entitled “Media Education: New Applications for Western Philosophy” which looks at the way that the concepts of philosphy, especially those that centre on epistemological questions are central to the study of the media, and indeed requires that this kind of study requires a philosophical rigour not often found in other subjects. Thanks for highlighting the fact that I am (probably) not a lone lunatic individual in thinking this…..

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