The Media Education Elephant

This article first appeared in Strategies Quarterly Summer 1991. Reprinted permission of author. Copyright 1991 Kathleen Tyner.

This 1991 article outlined important issues inhibiting the widespread implementation of media literacy in US schooling.

The Rajah spoke, "The elephant is a big animal. Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like."

– from "The Blind Men and the Elephant," a folk tale from India.

Media educators in the United States are a fractious bunch. One teacher's definition of media education is another's heresy. Like the blind men and the elephant, teachers often practice one small aspect of media education and conclude that they have the whole picture. When the nature and quality of these media education efforts are scrutinized, they fall under one of several broad and overlapping categories: protectionism, technology education, media arts education, and democratic education. The barriers to media education in the United States are still formidable, but there are indications that educators working under these arbitrary categories are beginning to intellectually cross-pollinate in order to position media education as an important cornerstone for teaching students democratic citizenship skills in a complex, technological world.


In the late 1970s the U.S. Department of Education (then called HEW) funded a television critical viewing program for teachers in the elementary and secondary grades in response to research that indicated a link between televised violence and role modeling behavior in children.*1 The popular wisdom was that U.S. society needed to "arm" children against the violence on television so that they would not emulate it in real life.

The critical viewing materials received mixed reviews from teachers. Although hundreds of thousands of dollars went into the program, teachers were provided with little training to use them and, in a "top-down" approach, were not central agents of their creation. With scant follow-up of their actual classroom use, it is uncertain how the materials were actually implemented in the classroom.*2

As a result of a deep economic recession in the early 1980s, the there was a widespread belief that students should be trained to compete in the global marketplace. Because media education was linked in the public's mind with the recreational technology of television, the critical viewing curriculum was seen as an unnecessary frill and new funding for computer literacy programs pushed critical viewing off the education agenda. The "back to the basics" movement in education subsequently nudged computer literacy to the sidelines.

It is important to note that this type of kneejerk political response to educational reform has resulted in a long history of disjointed funding and confused teaching practices in the United States. For example, computer literacy education, once the darling of educational bureaucrats, is currently hamstrung by a lack of teacher training, an emphasis on drill and practice and shrinking funding for equipment.*3 A review of educational trends in the U.S. demonstrates that if a curriculum is thrust upon teachers by those outside the classroom, it will be rejected, either actively or passively. Media education is no exception. *4

As critical viewing skills curricula waned in the early 1980s, a climate of industry deregulation waxed. The federal agencies, followed by the communication industries, eliminated almost all guidelines regulating children's programming. Protectionist coalitions are still working with mixed success to restore minimum regulation of children's programming, especially guidelines for advertising directed at children.

The protectionist stance toward media education is a logical extension of the traditional educator's role of gatekeeper to the curriculum and as arbitrator of taste. Broadly speaking, the protectionist media educator values fine art--especially literature--over television and other forms of popular culture and wants to enable students to use media wisely. This sometimes means that the teacher would prefer that students turn off the tv (comic books, Nintendo, radio, etc.) and read, but faced with reality, they usually settle for encouraging students to watch what adults define as "educational" programming.

Another facet of protectionism focuses on health issues. The National Institute of Mental Health and The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) have formulated some helpful guidelines on children's television out of concern for children's mental and physical health. The APA studies indicate that American children are simply too fat, caused by eating heavily-advertised junk food in front of the television and by not getting enough exercise.*5

Television seems to be the lightening rod for a general frustration with the values inherent in the pervasive consumer culture of the West. Values such as conspicuous consumption, the supremacy of the individual over societal concerns, environmental destruction as a cost of progress, and competition as opposed to cooperation, are thorny, open-ended philosophical issues in U.S. society. Attacks against consumer culture conflict with a populist philosophy--reflected in U.S. mass media--that links free market principles to the democratic rights of individuals. In this context, it is much easier to denounce the tube, the perfect delivery system for consumerism, than it is to resolve the inherent conflict of values raised by America's traditional, fierce, and uneasy grafting of free market capitalism with democratic principles.

Technology Education

Technology education is an updated, high-tech version of what used to be called "vocational education." Most of what passes for media education in the United States falls under this rubric, because it falls in line with some general cultural and organizational principles already valued by U.S. society. The prevailing notion in the United States is that the main purpose of education is to secure gainful employment. This utilitarian view of schooling is historically ingrained and reflected in the call for "job readiness," that is, the readiness of students to become productive workers in a global economy.

Technology education is the fair-haired child of the curriculum because it reflects this cultural value while avoiding the controversy of less-quantifiable programs. In addition to fitting into the job readiness mold, technology education also plays off the West's fascination with technology, an obsession that borders on technological fetishism. While linking this to that in a quantifiable, teacher-centered classroom, the programs have a penchant for defining communication in terms of machines and skirting the issues of technology and society, an arena that explores relative cultural values as opposed to fixed statements about science and human nature.

Almost every major communications corporation has educational partnerships with schools, either through equipment giveaways, educational software, or actually managing on-site corporate schools. The schools desperately need the equipment, resources and media access that these partnerships offer. In return, corporations get two benefits for the price of one: they can influence the education of future workers and they can establish brand loyalty with consumers at an early age.

Technology programs in the U.S. are currently computer-centered, although video is an up-and-coming contender. They are highly profiled and valued in U.S. public schools. Educators who teach in them and who control their budgets automatically accrue higher status than their low-tech, penniless colleagues. When international visitors ask to observe media education in the United States, they are shown--with great pride--the latest in high-tech electronics. No wonder international media educators come away with the impression that the U.S. does not have the vaguest notion about the principles of media education! And no wonder U.S. technology education experts do not know what else international media literacy experts could possibly expect from them.

Recognizing the need for some critical thinking about media, technology teachers say that their students are "learning by doing," but there is usually no formal, critical component in these exercises, since there is often a conscious effort to avoid technology's ideological influence on content. Technology education as it is practiced in the United States is clean, convenient and non-controversial--a plus in the traditional U.S. classroom--but too often it misses the opportunity to address the reason these machines were invented in the first place and that is to further human communication.

At this time, electronic media hardware and software often fall within the purview of the school librarian, sometimes called a "media resource specialist." Librarians have an inherent interest in free access to information, but stress that access is not enough if students cannot organize, analyze and evaluate the information available to them. These teachers have been friends of media education. To enrich their programs, technologists are forming partnerships with media artists, telecommunications specialists and media professionals, as well as with business people, to take technology programs beyond videotaping every school play and football game.

Media Arts Education

Media arts education is focused on goals of self-expression and creativity. In a bid to develop sophisticated audiences, museum education has been a strong outlet for the hands-on approach to media education. Non-profit media arts organizations are also providing educational models through partnerships with schools and sponsorship of independent student video production programs.

School residencies bring fine artists, writers and independent film and videomakers into school programs to work directly with students and sometimes with teachers. Hands-on video production is especially popular with those students who are doing poorly in the traditional classroom, dubbed as "at-risk students," an odious code term that means they are, among other things, at risk of dropping out of school. Production classes are highly student-centered and credited for increasing student self-esteem by engaging them and providing channels of creative expression.

There is a downside to programs that center around the goal of self-esteem building. At best, the esteem accrued through media production is a result of completing a project from beginning to end with adults who care. At its worst, the good feeling produced by working in an endeavor that approximates broadcast media simply is a borrowed esteem that defers true empowerment in order to keep students busy in activities that are self-absorbing and that keep them out of trouble in class. True self-esteem that enables students to give back to their communities, grows out of a mastery of skills, but also out of identifying, analyzing and overcoming the daily erosion of human dignity in an unjust society. While the media arts are a natural adjunct to critical thinking about media and society, tough social problems can only be tackled as a structured, purposeful part of media production.

There are other limitations to straight production programs. Since they are usually conducted by artists or others outside the school bureaucracy, teachers are confused about their purpose and about how they fit in the school culture. The artists are outsiders and as a result, the programs are sometimes marginalized within the institution. Artists must work hard to be seen as a total part of the curriculum and successful media arts programs have offered their artists' expertise and created open dialogues with teachers about the nature of media education in the curriculum. Just as classroom teachers are working toward production in a hands-on attempt to teach media analysis, media artists are starting to structure critical thinking about mass media into their production programs.

Democracy Education

An informed electorate is the cornerstone of democracy and teaching students to be good citizens in a democratic society is the goal of media literacy for many media educators in the United States. The problem with teaching democratic skills in U.S. education is that most schools in the country do not operate like democratic institutions, bearing closer resemblance to minimum security prisons. This inherent conflict is at the heart of educational reform and teachers who believe that citizenship is the goal of education, in at least equal measure with job readiness, teach around this schism as best they can.

Media educators are working across the United States, classroom by classroom, to guide their students to think critically about the information presented to them through mass media sources. In some cases, this work is provoked by the perception that the major mass medium in the classroom -- the textbook -- does not reflect the cultural diversity of U.S. society. As a result, portrayals of groups, historical narrative of events, visual representation and even artifacts, such as world maps, are creating widespread, rancorous debate in U.S. society.

For those teachers who are comfortable with a student-centered, open-ended classroom this debate opens an opportunity to teach students critical thinking skills through dialectic discourse techniques. For educators who believe that the teacher is the expert and that values are fixed, the cultural studies approach to media content is far too vague, negative and relative.

Groups working in the United States from a democratic citizenship perspective include community-based groups, church groups and those concerned with distorted representation in mass media. Other professional groups and associations work toward equal access to communication channels, freedom of speech and presentation of diverse content in mass media.

Overcoming Barriers

In spite of the efforts of media educators across the United States, it is safe to say that there are few organized efforts toward media education in school curricula and there are still many barriers to its implementation. There is a desperate need for pre-service teacher training that teaches about media. The major barrier for those already teaching is a lack of time to learn to address media in the classroom.

There are other barriers: the perception that the study of fine arts is superior to popular culture; the supremacy of print over other communication forms in public schools; and the entrenched feudalism of discrete areas of study. There is also a pervasive Yankee disinclination to look critically at U.S. culture, a first step in media education. Although U.S. media educators could learn much from our international colleagues, Americans have typically exhibited a xenophobia about incorporating educational ideas from outside the country.

The challenge for media educators in the United States is to steer the debate about literacy in society in directions which include all forms of communication in the literacy equation and which leave room for flexibility in policy-making so that teachers can learn to accommodate rapidly changing communication forms and literacy needs. One way to approach this problem is to continue to stress the goals of democratic citizenship as central to U.S. education and to form coalitions between technologists, protectionists, artists and media professionals.

At this point, media educators are still groping around the "elephant," arguing about the nature of the beast, but there is hope that they are beginning to see past their blinders in order to forge common goals and objectives, long-range planning and practical ideas for implementing media education in the United States.

In talking about the failures of the critical viewing movement in the United States a decade ago, James Anderson remarked, "In the absence of cataclysmic events, innovation in social institutions is at best a glacial process," but it is a process media education must continue to perpetrate.*6 If we cannot work together to meet the surmountable challenges of media education in the United States, then it remains to be seen how we can hope to continue the struggle for anything as daunting as democracy.



    • Pearl, D., et. al. **Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties.** (Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 1982).
    • Wheeler, P., et. al. "Formative review of the critical television viewing skills curriculum for secondary schools,' Final report, vol. 1. (San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Research and Development, July 1979).
    • Martinez, M.E. & Mead, N.A. **Computer Competence: The First National Assessment.** (New Jersey: Education Testing Service, 1988). See also, Sheingold, K. & Hadley, M. **Computer Use in the Classroom.** (New York: Bank Street College of Education, 1990).
    • Anderson, J.A. "The theoretical lineage of critical viewing curricula," **Journal of Communication,** vol. 30 no. 3, p. 64- 70.
    • Dietz, W. & Gortmaker, S. "Do we fatten our children at the television set?" **Pediatrics**, vol. 75 no. 5, May 1985.



Author Bio: 

Kathleen Tyner is a leading American media educator who lives in San Francisco. She is the author of Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information and has participated internationally in forums for UNESCO, the British Film Institute, Universidad Naticionales Educaciones Distancia (Madrid), and the World Council for Media Education.