Orthodoxy is the Enemy: Four Ways NOT to Teach Media Literacy

From Screening Images: Ideas for Media Education,

Plus One Great Way to Start!

An orthodoxy is a strong point of view. It often starts from a philosophy or an ideology, and ends up as a way of seeing the entire world. Some orthodoxies come from religions, some from politics, others from charismatic individuals in all walks of life. People who hold to an orthodoxy are prone to extreme, dogmatic and inflexible thinking. There are orthodoxies in teaching, such as phonics-first and look-say approaches to beginning reading, and there are orthodoxies in media education that can lead the unwary media teacher into all kinds of swampy territory.

Orthodoxy #1: Media Education As Civil Defense

There's a way of thinking about media, and of presenting them in the classroom, that is based on the orthodoxy that the media are bad for you and that you need to be protected from them by a cuirass of knowledge about the detailed nature of their evil. You may have noticed an irony in the fact that some of the people who decry the wickedness of the media do so on TV, frequently on Sunday mornings. Neil Postman, the Education as a Subversive/Conserving Activity man, has written a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death,(Viking, 1985) in which he sounds a Chicken-Little call that our society has succeeded in spawning yet another dastardly influence that will undermine its very moral fibre and lead to its downfall.

A partial list of all these spawnings during my own lifetime would have to include such degenerate phenomena as: horror comics, ball point pens, Elvis Presley, hooped skirts, Go-Go girls, The Catcher in the Rye, narrow trouser bottoms, Chubby Checker, Coca Cola, Playboy, electronic calculators, bell bottomed trousers, mini skirts, rock 'n roll, video arcades, computers, Club Med, the Beatles, maxi skirts, headbands, draft dodgers, The Diviners, Walkmans, ghetto blasters, Much Music, Miami Vice, Nintendo...You get the picture.

You have probably seen it a hundred times if you have seen it once: the great TV statistic. You know, the one that tells us that today's children have watched more TV than they have eaten breakfasts; spent more time in front of the TV than in school; seen more films than they've had conversations; and so on.

The most recent manifestation of this orthodoxy is now called "the prevention approach". It is based on concerns and assumptions of public health such as: media content is a cause of social ills like violence, teen pregnancy, bad language, drug abuse etc. Media education is seen as a cure for these ills, or at least as a tool in the cure. People stake out extreme positions at the polar ends of this view of media-as-cause and lob missiles at each other from their entrenched positions, asserting their certain knowledge that media do or do not cause social behavior.

Good luck to 'em.

Children today are certainly more influenced by TV than their grandparents were, but they are perhaps less influenced by it than their parents were at the same age. This is not the first TV generation to hit the schools. Still, many of those statistics about hours watched and such are based on the number of hours the TV set is turned on in a house, with a gigantic leap of faith involved in concluding that everyone, or even someone is watching the darned thing.

You will probably be able to name more than one person who actually does seem to be negatively influenced by extreme exposure to TV, and you may well believe that rationing TV or even banning some of its manifestations would be a boon to our society and to many individuals in it. But if you do, then I urge you to beware of the orthodoxy in which a perfectly good idea or philosophy is turned into a compulsory and inflexible system to be followed at all costs.

If you get on board with this orthodoxy, you will find yourself at odds with much of today's popular culture, and with the young people who find their diversion and entertainment in it. In short, you'll have isolated yourself from the very people you are trying to influence. Media education will have been turned into another of those school subjects in which the students' knowledge and ideas are valued less than the teacher's. Success will be assessed not so much in terms of originality and daring as in terms of measuring up to the orthodoxy.


I urge you to beware of the orthodoxy in which a perfectly good idea or philosophy is turned into a compulsory and inflexible system to be followed at all costs.


Where, you might ask, are the counterbalancing claims about all the benefits we get from being a media society? Do we really believe that the Vietnam war, Watergate, Irangate etc would have been subject to such public scrutiny without the media? (If the media were not so influential in these instances, how do we explain the concerted effort of the authorities to avoid the Vietnam influences during the Granada and Panama invasions, the Falklands war or the Gulf or Kosovo wars, with such fascinating results for the student of media?)

Would we willingly deprive ourselves of all the excellence in the media, including TV, just to be rid of the unabashed junk? And do we fool ourselves into believing that if we were successful in getting rid of one batch of junk there would not immediately arise a new batch to take its place? Who is hypocrite enough to pretend that they themselves do not enjoy junk from time to time?

If we approach media education in the classroom with this civil defense attitude, then there is an almost sure-fire guarantee that students will switch us off, counting our dire warnings as just another manifestation of adult paranoia and lack of understanding. No, we cannot teach media in the classroom from an orthodox aim of "improving our students' taste in media". That is just the old aim of teaching middle class values dressed up in new garb. The minute we criticize the stuff kids like to read, watch or listen to as being in some way inferior, we have lost their attention, pushed them into an attitude of rejecting our values as strongly as we reject theirs, turned media education into another dreary trip through Lorna Doone or Moby Dick.

Orthodoxy #2: Media Education As Ideological Means Test

In some ways the corollary to the civil defense approach to media education is the approach that subjects every piece of media content to some sort of suitability test based upon the ideology that underpins it. It doesn't matter what set of ideals you are trying to promote with this particular form of selection; the point is that you are going to present an incomplete view of the world, and exclude many excellent pieces of media work, simply because they do not agree with an orthodox ideology. You are going to be propagandizing your students.

The leftists, for instance, will want to bathe the students in media that dump on acid rain, free trade, pro-life, globalization and similar issues. This group might perhaps censor out of their students' experience the films of Leni Reifenstahl, or the writings of Wm. F. Buckley jr., simply because these people's works stand outside the official orthodoxy.

Rightists would look for media to support a different set of values, and would want nothing to do with the films of Arthur Penn, the books of John Steinbeck, liberal-minded TV programs such as Star Trek, anything on the CBC, or from the editorial pages of the Toronto Star.

This kind of selection is nothing less than a form of censorship, and results not in media education so much as media conditioning.

If this orthodoxy were restricted to political or philosophical ideas, it would be relatively easy to deal with, but today, ideologies that begin with political, philosophical or religious ideas extend into areas related to race, gender, sexual orientation and class, into issues like equity and voice, and into topics like abortion, welfare and economics.


The only tenable stance towards ideology is one which helps students identify ideological influences in their media, clarify their own ideological beliefs, and come to terms with the way that ideologies operate within the media.


The danger in media education when it comes to ideology is to present a course in which only one ideology, or even one narrow band of one ideology is acceptable or "correct". To succeed in the course students don't have to learn to think for themselves so much as to think like the teacher. Imposing this kind of orthodoxy on students is crippling.

Of course it would be silly in media education to pretend that ideologies did not exist or that they did not influence the media. It would, perhaps, be criminal. Ignoring ideology is no better than pushing a single ideology. The only tenable stance towards ideology is one which helps students identify ideological influences in their media, clarify their own ideological beliefs, and come to terms with the way that ideologies operate within the media. The course should focus on the strengths and weaknesses of various ideological stances as they appear in the media, showing respect for difference. In the end we have to acknowledge that the course is one in media, not in ideology.

Orthodoxy #3: Media Education As Multiplication Tables

Perhaps you've come across a few of the publications that treat media education as if it were a set of new multiplication tables to be memorized. I'm thinking of the approach to media that assumes everything has to be reduced to lists of terms and techniques to be memorized and tested; that bases its approach on the unstated assumption that artists consciously work from lists of techniques and terminologies in creating their work, and that students must know the grammar of each medium in order to be qualified to study it.

This approach assumes that students cannot study photographs or pictures until after they have learnt all about composition and cameras. The study of film becomes the memorizing of the names given to camera shots and angles. Newspaper study degenerates into learning off the jargon of journalism. The study of TV is reduced to a list of facts about studio set ups. The nation needs more kids who know the difference between a cut and a fade. (Or substitute: who can list off seven characteristics of the ballad; who can define and give one example of zeugma; who can recite the difference between a gerund and a gerundive.)

The orthodoxy here is one that denies the value of investigative learning, that puts the teacher solely in charge of the classroom's entire agenda, and that believes that the students learn only what is directly taught to them. This orthodoxy has its corollary in the approach which forbids teachers ever to intervene in students' learning, for fear of interfering with natural processes. As orthodoxies, both are literally stifling to students who are trying to do an efficient job of learning; but both can also be liberating when used judiciously.

If a student asks a question like, "How does the emulsion get onto the film?" a teacher might well teach a compact, informative mini-lesson on the topic. Another teacher might guide the student to resources where the information can easily be found. Another might merely say "Find out for yourself, and prepare a short report for the class." Any of these responses might be perfectly valid, providing they came from an orientation that considers the student and the context of the question, rather than from an inflexible belief about where knowledge comes from or how students learn.


Learning situations can be very different from instructing situations.


It isn't enough for students to have just some easy, technical kind of knowledge about their culture, nor is it important for them to acquire this kind of knowledge before they go on to do anything else. Unless there has been a time in class when the effect of a fade on a TV screen became an important issue, or when a student had a good reason to want to use one in a class project, then there is no reason to bring up the term at all. Arguing that kids can't understand the media without knowing the terminology first is like saying that it's necessary to understand how the Muppets are worked by their handlers before you can watch Sesame Street properly.

On the other hand, if we put watching Sesame Street first, and progress from there to inquiring about the puppets, then we have a learning situation. Learning situations can be very different from instructing situations.

Orthodoxy #4: Media Criticism 301

Look out for the great literary criticism trap, in which the media are seen merely as alternatives to books ( and who knows books better than us English teachers? ) and therefore are to be treated in the same way as books: hunt the Christ figure; seek the symbol; uproot the archetype; find the myth; identify the auteur; explore the genre. In this approach the teacher is empowered by being possessed of a kind of knowledge that the kids don't have because they haven't taken the second and third year university courses in which the teacher learned it. This helps teachers to feel important. It also helps teachers to keep control by preventing the study at hand from taking off in unanticipated directions. It's dull and weary, won't do the media any good at all, and certainly will do very little to help students to a better understanding of the media world in which they swim.

How many people do you really know who tune into their favourite TV show because of its "Jungian echoes", or who select the movies they'll see on the grounds of how faithful they are to archetypal patterns? Such considerations are valid, but their validity is academic. They are even important, but their importance is chiefly for adults and scholars of criticism. Let's leave them in the advanced university courses where they belong, and let's hide our own overt knowledge of critical terminology from children rather than flaunt it or require them to parrot it. When we want to communicate with students on equal terms, it's far better for us to construct a terminology together to suit our joint needs.

Conclusion: How to Turn Kids on to Media Education

Media education ought to be an exploration. The teachers should be exploring as much as the students, and should be learning the same amount, perhaps more. The concept of co-learning that is common in the literature of gifted education is a very useful concept for teachers of media education. A teacher who knows nothing or little about a topic does not need to feel inadequate in front of a class of students. The skill of the teacher resides in the ability to help young people learn. That is our profession.

Teachers and students should approach the media as inquiry. Their objectives should be to see what questions turn out to be important about the media, what methods they can devise to find out the answers, and then what the answers turn out to be. There would be no contradiction if the teacher habitually steered the class in the direction of a useful piece of information, a concept, or in a way that required the exercise of a new skill.

Right and wrong is far too narrow a spectrum of possibility for responses if we are to encourage real inquiry.

There would almost certainly be times when the teacher would find it profitable and wise to arrange for a class on terminology, or ideology, or civil defense, or critical theory; but those occasions should arise from the questions raised in the class rather than from the fact that it is the third Tuesday in November. Those classes might just as easily be taught by some of the students as by the teacher, for, frequently, the students will be in the know when the teachers are in the dark.

We should be careful of the trap of assuming that there are going to be right and wrong answers to the questions that are raised. Right and wrong is far too narrow a spectrum of possibility for responses if we are to encourage real inquiry. But we can be sure that there will be good learning and weak learning; worthwhile investigation and poor investigation; clear thinking and muddled thinking. Helping students differentiate among these produces outcomes worth placing at the head of the educational agenda in any classroom. Uncovering the many levels of meaning in a media message and the multiple answers to even basic questions is what makes media education so engaging for kids and so enlightening for adults.

If this itself is an orthodoxy, then it's one I can live with more easily than the others.