Why a Manifesto?

Pete Fraser, Doctoral Researcher  & Jon Wardle, Director, The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University

The last decade has seen a resurgence in ideological movements, from Islamic fundamentalism to opposition to climate change. Believing in something, and believing in it enough to do something to advance its cause, whether it be attending a march (Make Poverty History), protesting (G20, Tuition fee demos), or buying something (Rage Against the Machine – Christmas Number 1) is once again on the rise.

When Charlie Brooker Interviewed David Simon at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, he asked him whether everything he did had to have a message. David Simon replied:

‘Yes…or why do it? They are giving you 10 or 12 hours commercial free on HBO and they are not getting in your way. You get to say what you think is justified, and you get to find a way to say it. I’m using drama to do it. It’s the tool in my tool box. Yes everything should have a message or what’s the point?’ (Edinburgh International TV Festival, 28th August 2009)

David Simon has an ideological perspective. He believes that all media at its heart should have something to say and that is its purpose. This book is based on the assumption that media education too should have a purpose and that we need to be more explicit about what that purpose might be.

From the prompting of Len Masterman in the early 80s, many teachers might describe Media Education as a process of ‘demystification’, with teachers supporting students to develop the capabilities to read media texts in order to ‘liberate’ them from the media’s ‘mystification’. But others, like David Buckingham, have questioned this, suggesting that maybe students aren’t quite so helpless that they need their teachers to ‘unmask’ media texts.

Over the past twenty years, this tension has usefully been explored through a variety of texts which have focussed on teaching in the media classroom; coupled with recent initiatives to further professionalise the teaching sector, a renewed focus on teaching and learning strategies and approaches have resulted in significant improvements in classroom practice.  But for what purpose?

There are those who would dismiss the very idea of studying the media.  The Daily Mail might argue that it is only on the national curriculum and available at degree level to ensure that the participation numbers for young people engaged in formal learning and gaining good qualifications remains high- the ‘dumbing down’ agenda. They might argue that studying Soap isn’t a serious pursuit and will be frowned upon by University admission tutors and employers. Implicitly this argument is promoting a high brow / lowbrow divide; we can’t remember the last time we read an ‘angry from Tunbridge Wells’ letter complaining that the tax payers money was being used to fund the teaching of metaphysical poetry instead of physics.

In terms of a vocational view of media education, the last Labour Government in the UK seemed to take the view  that a key reason for recruiting students onto media courses was to develop a generation capable of leading the world’s creative industries in order to grow GDP.

By contrast, Buckingham and others argue that we study the media and teach people how to make it because it plays an increasingly significant role in our lives and our ability to ‘read’  and ‘write’ media texts is vital to a civic society.  Indeed, the sheer amount of time young people spend with the media is itself often offered as a key reason for studying it.

A common view of education is that it doesn’t do us any good unless it hurts; many young people, far from looking back on their school days as ‘the best days of our lives’ remember a time of rote learning and failure. It is still all too common to hear that their educational experiences are far from positive; but media courses for many students do offer pleasure and enjoyment of learning, and we would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with that!

These are just some of the discourses around Media education. This book will seek to explore why a range of people involved in the field see it as an important activity to engage in.

Peter Kosminsky, the docu-drama writer director responsible for The Government Inspector and Warriors at a recent graduation ceremony encouraged students to think about how they themselves would measure success.

‘Used correctly [television] has incredible power, and that power is about to be passed into your hands, and I would beg you, beg you, to make good use of it. You don’t have to just continue and mimic what’s gone before…. its time for a new generation to come along and make some mischief, please hear me, your job is to shake things up, and I don’t just mean in the industry itself. Your job is to shake things up in this country. A healthy democracy requires a powerful and free media, your job it to ask the difficult questions of people in power, your job is to make things difficult. So I would urge you not focus on the difficult job of getting a job as a runner, or as an assistant producer, but try to figure out why you are going into the industry, what have you got to say? What can you do with this incredibly powerful medium? (Bournemouth University Graduation, Kosminsky, November 6th 2009)

Fancy that, it took till Graduation, their last day on campus, for the students to be asked to think deeply about what they had learnt and for what purpose they might deploy it. This project comes at a time when media education appears to be flourishing. Applications to media courses in the UK have never been higher; in South East Asia, media education is now a legislated aspect of schooling in a number of countries and in the US various foundations are making millions of pounds available for academics to investigate the nation’s media literacy. Yet, we spend very little  time discussing what we are trying to achieve and what the measures of success might be. We might be disappointed if at the end of our teaching careers, the best measure of success we can point to is we helped our students get some good grades and a couple of them worked on some popular TV programmes.

Twenty five years of scholarship have bought about broad consensus on the theoretical framework for Media Education – 1) that media is representation not reality, 2) that the media is produced by organizations and individuals and therefore can and should be read critically 3) that the media is now not only read and received, but reinterpreted by audiences. We would nonetheless argue that we are still some way from identifying a broader teaching and learning framework for media education and most critically – and the focus of this work – we are yet to articulate a clear purpose for the work we do. What is the point of media education? – whether it be media studies, media practice, media production, media literacy – what is the point?. You may argue the clue is in the title of each of these subsets of media education – as on the surface the differences between media production and media literacy seem pretty straightforward. However, the purpose of each still feels rather opaque.

Are we seeking to develop the media producers of tomorrow, or to nurture individuals capable of holding power to account, are we seeking to hold a looking glass up to society in order for society itself to better understand itself, or perhaps we are hoping to develop a more media literate society capable of protecting itself from evil media conglomerates?

These might all be laudable aims, but how far are media teachers articulating their own agenda? As Neil Postman has written: ‘to become a different person because of something you have learned – to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered, for that to happen you need a reason. A reason, as I use the word here is different to a motivation’. (Postman, The End of Education)

In ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell (1931) identified four great motives or purposes for writing- sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose; in this book we are asking a range of media educators to consider the motives and purposes they might have for teaching about the media.

Over the last ten years there has been a lot of attention paid to the student experience and improving our teaching and learning. There has also been a lot of discussion about the types of themes we should teach and across what media, yet if you subscribe to Postman’s view of the world, to truly improve the student experience and to legitimise our subject we need to be clear about the reason for learning about the media.

Hence a manifesto.

This project is an attempt to develop a shared understanding, some shared reasons, for media education. We hope it will stimulate discussion within course teams and with students. We imagine it will lead to conversations about how we teach and what specific things we teach, but those are secondary questions. We believe we may uncover many reasons but it seems better to have articulated many as opposed to none and as Postman says ‘A definition is the starting point of a dispute, not the settlement’.

On this website you will find a variety of writers’ summations of their reasoning for media education. These will be context specific and at times may feel at odds with one another. However we hope that by the end of the process we will have a better, more sustaining understanding of the purpose of what we do and that we will be able to draw on this understanding to keep us on track in the classroom and in defending and advocating our subject in the future.

The manifesto project is supported by The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice (CEMP). CEMP is a research and innovation centre based in the Media School at Bournemouth University. It was awarded its status in 2004 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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