Cultural Disneyland? The history of an inferiority complex

Dr Richard Berger, Reader in Media & Education, The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University

In the 1990s, the then Education Secretary in the UK, John Patten, called media courses and programmes, ‘pseudo religion’ and a ‘cultural Disneyland’. This from a government which established the Department for Media, Culture and Sport in 1992 – then called the Department of National Heritage. Nonetheless, it seems that media education has suffered from an inferiority complex ever since. However, far from damaging our subject, these criticisms are actually the result of a significant success story. There were once heated debates about the introduction of English Literature at Oxford University, and even Jane Austen had to defend the novel in her own Northanger Abbey.

In the years after that novel was posthumously published (1818), others would have to defend the right to study their particular media of choice, but the examination – and surrounding scholarship – of what we would now call the ‘modern mass media’ has in reality been an aspect of the teaching curricula in the UK since the 1950s. This was partly the result of the first British Film Institute (BFI) conference in 1946, whereby a select group of largely London-based school teachers began using film in their classes (see Bolas 2009). There was definitely a sense of paternalist inoculation here as it was felt that children and young people needed to be ‘protected’ from this potentially dangerous media; the perverse logic went that if children could be taught how to discriminate between good and bad films, then they would become better citizens – and the cinema industry would be forced to clean up its act as a consequence. A ‘film appreciation’ movement later emerged in schools in the 1960s and 1970, where film clubs were very popular – although this was generally extra-curricula, and very middle-class. Those early teachers, who used film in their teaching in some way, came from subjects such as of Physics, Geography and Economics. Decades later, Len Masterman (1985) would argue for a film education to be an integral part of Geography, Science, English and History subjects:

“[I have] used a great deal of film in my English teaching in the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly with low-stream kids to whom print was synonymous with failure” (1985, xiv).

This was reflected in the emerging media studies programmes in the latter-half of the 20th century, and their ultimate purpose: to foster a sense of media literacy in students. In the wake of the 1963 Newsom Report, UK schools where divided along the lines of those teachers who saw a media education as an essential part of ‘good’ citizenship and a means to promote ‘critical thinking’; those, like Masterman and David Buckingham, who argued for a type of media education in all schools; and those who taught media in polytechnics and some universities to students who wanted to make their own films and who wanted to work in, what was then, thriving British film and television industries. As the UK film industry declined in global prominence and influence in the 1980s and 1990s, conversely media, as a taught subject in schools, colleges and the new ‘post 1992’ universities, was booming: dozens of media studies and production programmes were being set up to sate the appetite of a generation eager to participate in some way; if you were a young person in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and to an extent, the 1990s, who wanted to make your own media texts, you had to take a media programme of some type at your school or college. Today, new technology mean that this is no longer the case; pretty much anyone can get access to production, acquisition and production equipment, and this poses particular challenges for those of us in media education, or who use media in some way, in our teaching.

Media literacy, was seen by many, as a crucial aspect of a wider literacy education. But the problem was that media education began to move away from the media and creative industries (and practice) towards ‘high theory’, just at a time when students were becoming more involved in creating their own media texts, and this has caused a dangerous schism. As Buckingham notes:

“Media teaching has been historically been dominated by ‘critical analysis’ – and indeed, by a relatively narrow form of textual analysis [original italics]” (2003, 49).

This then, has been the core problem for media education, as it became further divorced from practice. In addition, the ‘high-theory’ of media studies was now being integrated into the wider arts, humanities and social science subjects: many History programmes started to look very much like media studies. Indeed, many teachers of film and media studies began their careers as English or History teachers, for as Deborah Cartmell, notes:

“Surely, there’s not an English teacher anywhere who doesn’t use film to illuminate Shakespeare, or who doesn’t ask students to translate a literary text to a context that is relevant to their own situations. However, this process, utilized by so many educators, is rarely interrogated or explained” (2010, vii).

Some large claims have been recently made about media’s pedagogic reach, but as with Masterman in the 1980s, such use of media texts in the classroom is usually in the context of using it as some form of prophylactic, or to help young people who are struggling; so paradoxically the teaching of media has both been seen as a cure for something, and the cause of it:

“It may seem unlikely, but E.T. and Wall-E are being credited as playing an important role in aiding the educational development of today’s schoolchildren…[M]ovies help disengaged pupils to connect with their lessons” (Doward 2010).

So, clearly we haven’t moved far in 30 years, while the rest of the arts, humanities and social sciences subjects coalesce around us, and take the best bits for their own. This problem has been made worse, with the emergence of medium specific silos and their attendant canons from the 1980s. Nothing has done more damage to media education than by the imagined distinctions between film studies, television studies, radio studies and now new media and games studies – and this has not been helped by the medium specific nature of school and college curricular.

Some, such as Jonathan Gray, perhaps point a way out of this mess:

“[W]hile ‘screen studies’ exists as a discipline encompassing both film and television studies, we need an ‘off-screen’ studies to make sense of the wealth of other entities that saturate the media and that construct film and television” (2010, 7).

Perhaps a focus on these paratexts is a better way of understanding the relationship that different media have with other media? Since the late 1980s onwards – the very beginnings of the schism I describe – many of our students have been actively involved in what is loosely deemed ‘Web 2.0’ phenomena, such as online fanfic writing and fan filmmaking. Many young people – and therefore out students – now live in an era of re-purposing; they are their own authors (or auteurs) of content. They are also ‘digital natives’ in that new social practices are often non-medium specific – failing to recognise the, often imagined, distinctions between different media. The creative and media industries are no longer ‘out there’ in any traditional industrial context. Significant aspects of today’s creative and media industries are constituted in bedrooms and classrooms. This is in part due to new technology, but educators often fail to aggregate these types of activities. Today’s student has probably spent a decade making media before they apply to film school and this now poses particular challenges for the media teacher:
This medium specificity has also resulted in a fetishism of technology, as our schools and colleges engage in an arms race to acquire the latest production kit. For many, media studies is just about technology and tools. The view is that students will therefore chase the technology, but often they have better kit at home:

“The technology young people use these days in their out-of-school/college contexts will often be more sophisticated than what we are offering, and they may find our interventions into their everyday digital culture clumsy and awkward, rather than inspiring and empowering” (McDougall 2006, x).

This obsession with technology has been to the detriment of media education. So, we now need to turn away from the ‘high theory’ and return to our modern, completely mediated, lives and the core principles of professional conduct, for as Marc Prensky would have it:

“[U]sing technology is the student’s job. The teacher’s job is to coach and guide the use of technology for effective learning” (2010, 3).

Media education is at its best when it is studying and critiquing practice and policy. A media education should not just be for those who want a career in the creative and media industries, in the same way not all literature graduates will write novels or plays. However, there is probably no subject that shadows its industry so closely. A media education then, and one which is closely aligned to the modern media industries, its professionals and its practices, should benefit anyone who lives in our very mediated world. Media education today, and therefore any manifesto for media education, must be attuned to the relationships perceived distinct media have with each other, and the abundance of texts and practices which are the direct result of such exchanges. Media education should seek to explore these commonalities between media, what they share, what and how they exchange professional personnel, technologies and techniques, and the texts which are the result. No one would ever the question the value in reading and studying a novel, a play or a poem. No one should question then the value in reading and studying a film, television programme or videogame, if only for what these ‘new’ medias owe to older ones.


Bolas, Terry. 2009. Screen Education: from film appreciation to media studies. Bristol: Intellect.
Buckingham, David. 2003. Media Education: literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge: Polity.
Cartmell, Deborah. 2010. Foreword. Pp. vii-viii in Redefining Adaptation Studies, ed. D. Cutchins, L. Raw, and J. M. Welsh. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.
Doward, Jamie. 2010. How classic films give pupils a taste for learning, The Observer, (31 October 2010).
Gray, Jonathan. 2010. Show Sold Separately: promos, spoilers and other media paratexts. New York: New York University Press.
Masterman, Len. 1985. Teaching the Media. London: Routledge.
McDougall, Julian. 2006. The Media Teacher’s Book. London: Hodder.
Prensky, Marc. 2010. Teaching Digital Natives: partnering for real learning. California: Corwin.

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