Manifestos for the Future of Media Education

A few months ago, I was asked if I might contribute a short essay to a United Kingdom based project to frame a series of arguments around the value of media education in the 21st Century. The project is intended to spark debate within the Media Studies field and beyond about the value of our contribution to secondary and post-secondary education. This week, Pete Fraser, Chief Examiner of OCR Media Studies & Jon Wardle, Director, The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University, launched a website which includes ten such manifestos, including mine, and which they hope will host ongoing discussions around these issues. Here's part of the rationale they provide for the project:

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....

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?...

I used my own response to their provocation to reflect a bit on what we learned through the decade plus that I ran the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT and especially how we might extend the thinking behind Project New Media Literacies to include more advanced studies in media. Here's part of what I had to say:

We should no longer be debating the value of media education. The real question is whether media education should be a stand-alone discipline or whether expertise in media should be integrated across all disciplines, just as the ability to communicate is increasingly recognized as valuable across the curriculum....

Beyond these core skills which need to be integrated into K-12 education [those in the MacArthur white paper], though, I might also argue for kinds of contextual knowledge which are vital in making sense of the changes taking place around us. All learners need to acquire a basic understanding of the processes of media change, an understanding which in turn requires a fuller grasp of the history of previous moments of media in transition. All learners need to acquire a core understanding of the institutions and practices shaping the production and ciculation of media -- from the Broadcast networks to the social networks, from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley....

Media education offers skills, knowledge, and conceptual frameworks we need in our everyday lives as consumers and citizens, members of families and communities, but they should also be part of the professional education of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, people entering a range of professions and occupations. At the present moment, there is a tremendous need across all sectors for what the industry calls "thought leadership" -- the ability to translate big picture change into language that can be widely understood and engaged -- as well as the capacity to deploy such media expertise to shape pragmatic and practical decisions.

Grant McCracken (2009) has argued that this hunger for insights into how media and cultural change impacts economic decision-making may lead many business to hire "Chief Cultural Officers," ideally people who can bring humanistic expertise on culture and society into the C-Suite. If this vision came to pass, we might imagine media educated students entering not only the academy or the creative industries, but business of all kinds, policy think tanks, arts curatorships, journalism, advertising and branding, and a range of other jobs, many of which do not yet have names. Current media education tends to focus on reproducing the professoriate, despite declining numbers of jobs, and treating the vast number of our alums who get jobs elsewhere as if this was a failure of the system, an unfortunate byproduct of the decline of higher education. What if we reversed these priorities and saw the expertise media education offers as valuable in a range of different kinds of jobs and presented these options to our students at every step in the process.

The kinds of media education required for such a context differs profoundly from what we have offered in the past. For starters, it requires a much more conscious engagement with the relationship between theory and practice -- not simply production practices (itself a big change given how often theory and production faculty sit at opposite ends of the conference table at faculty meetings) but the practices of everyday life. We need to compliment the current theoretical domains of media study with a more applied discipline, which encourages students to test their understanding through making things, solving problems, and sharing their insights with the general public.

The site's participants include some of England's top thinkers about media and learning, including David Buckingham, David Gauntlet, Cary Bazalgate, Natalie Fenton, and Julian McDougall. Having just spoken at a British media literacy conference in November, I came away with a deeper understanding of the caliber of scholarship and pedagogy emerging there and of the particular nature of the political struggles they are facing over education at the moment. I welcome the chance to learn more about their thinking through the ten remarkable essays the site assembles.

To whet your appetite for more, let me close by sharing a chunk of David Buckingham's manifesto. Buckingham notes that he often finds the rhetoric by which we justify our profession overblown and deterministic, so he labels himself a poor choice to write a manifesto. In fact, it is precisely because Buckingham is so cautious in the claims he makes, so skeptical in the way that he reads the world, that his work carries such weight and impact:

I have always felt that media education suffers from an excess of grandiose rhetoric. We have all heard far too many assertions about how media education can change the world, save democracy or empower the powerless. As a classroom teacher, I was always painfully aware of the gap between this sort of rhetoric and the messy realities of my own practice (and I don't think that was just about being a useless teacher). While it can be morale-boosting in the short term, this overblown rhetoric does not serve teachers very well: we need to cast a more dispassionate eye on what really happens in the classroom, however awkward or even painful that might feel.

In my view, we can make the case much more effectively by showing in concrete ways what and how children can learn about media. Most of the critics of media education do not have even the faintest idea of what it actually looks like in practice. Media education can be intellectually challenging; it can involve intense and rigorous forms of creativity; and it can engage learners in ways that many other school subjects do not. Even experienced teachers can be positively surprised by the quality and sophistication of students' thinking as they engage in media education activities - and by the forms of oral and written work that result from it. Like any other school subject, media education can also be undemanding and boring, and it can result in pointless 'busywork'. I am not calling here for rose-tinted accounts of 'good practice', of the kind that most teachers tend to find somewhat implausible. Rather, we need to come up with evidence that media education actually works - that it can engage, challenge and motivate young people, as well as enabling them to understand and to participate more fully in the media culture that surrounds them.