This morning I had a conversation with a visitor to the McLuhan Program Coach House who asked me about introducing the subject area of media literacy into a school curriculum in her country. The visitor noted that Canada is internationally renowned for its leadership in media literacy throughout its school system, although, she observed, it seems to have been cut back recently. (One might say we were Harris’ed by the Eves of destruction, but that’s a bit subtle, isn’t it?)
This observation is indeed telling, since the ground of media literacy involves a discourse of power, control and the ability to manipulate opinion. Governments that do not readily cede control in favour of a thoughtful public critique, tend not to favour media literacy as a subject in school. At the primary level, students are introduced to the idea of “reading” the content of television programs, advertising, and popular culture to discover the not-very-obvious (at least to young people) methods that these various vehicles use to influence behaviour and attitudes. Young students can be shown, for instance, how the funny clown might make the clown’s hamburgers more appealing than, say, other hamburgers. Once trained to make the connection between their attraction to the clown and their attraction to the clown’s burgers, children are on their way to question the nature and source of the attraction to other products and services. A television show in which the leading character is a toy can be “read” as a half-hour advertisement for the toy, breakfast cereal ads notwithstanding.
At an older age, the critically-thinking high school student can be shown how the clown with the hamburger on Saturday morning cartoons is substituted on the evening news and talk shows by the clown with the tax cuts, or the clown with the war-to-wage. Again, the skill to be developed is that of reading the sophisticated mechanisms that manipulate the emotions of the audience. Instead of the child being attracted to the clown so that she will buy the hamburger, the adult is subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) attracted to the tax cuts or war so that he will buy the clown. The key is to be able to read the techniques of manipulation over and above the supposed logic of the content itself. In the United States, an appropriate exercise might be to deconstruct some of the commentators on Fox News, or the films of Michael Moore. In Canada, deconstructing Stephen Harper and Paul Martin have almost become national pastimes.
As this skill of critical analysis develops in the young adult, s/he becomes increasingly immune to political manipulations in the first place. Society is less likely to “buy the clown” and the clown’s policies at face value, and societies need not suffer the types of disruptions, loss of life, and fiscal mismanagement that have become hallmarks of both developed and developing countries alike. Among many Western countries, there is already a place for media literacy in the curriculum – a legacy of 1960s progressivism and fascination with the television. Among countries without such a tradition, the introduction of media literacy in a school curriculum means that the political leadership must be willing to accept an electorate that will become increasingly aware over time. I daresay there are precious few countries these days that have such enlightened leadership – and I’m not only referring to non-Western and emerging nations.
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