Bring Back Marshall McLuhan

IN the early 1970s, ``media literacy'' courses were grafted onto the curriculums of elementary and high schools nationwide. The drive to make kids media literate came from an awakening among educators to the prominent role media play in shaping children's perceptions. Hard-core followers of Marshall McLuhan had a field day. But in today's classrooms, where teachers are caught up in the return to basics, media studies are almost entirely absent. Despite media's ever greater intrusion into students' lives, little remains of media training. The idea behind the media-literacy movement went like this: Kids spend more hours outside the schools consuming media than they do inside the schools hitting the books. In fact, even before they reach school age, most kids are saturated with media. Let's help them become critical viewers, so they grow to be adults capable of distinguishing true reality from media realities.

While some teachers embraced the new media literacy coursework, most administrators and the majority of more traditionally minded teachers looked askance at the introduction of TV programs, films, cameras, and tape recorders into classrooms. Most harbored suspicions that the McLuhanites were just ``goofing off'' on the job. In the 1980s, with a national ``crisis'' in SAT scores, media coursework was dropped.

Media as a curriculum topic ``needs to be revitalized, resurfaced, and promoted,'' says Karen Jaffe, president of KIDSNET, a Washington, D.C., clearing house. The first step, according to Ms. Jaffe, would be to change attitudes toward media, beginning with television. ``The educator must be receptive, and feel that TV is not `the enemy.' There is a real need to take hold of television and use it as a positive experience for children. You can use it to teach discriminating thinking and problem-solving - not just `critical viewing,''' she says.

While the focus in education today is on building a ``knowledge base,'' emphasis is also put on developing critical thinking. ``If kids are given the opportunity to analyze and evaluate media, they stand a chance of shaking themselves free of conformity,'' says Alan Lengel, a finalist for 1987 Virginia Teacher of the Year. ``If they can learn to evaluate media, they can begin to see how they are so often manipulated and duped, instead of informed.''

Neil Postman, communications professor at New York University, advocates using media studies to help kids step outside of their media-saturated environment. ``Media education involves understanding the role technology plays in shaping cognitive habits, political ideas, and social behavior,'' he says. Teaching media to kids would mean, among other things, getting them to monitor their own consumption of media, and to see how the different media structure their time and stimulate their senses. Kids would also be taught to look for the ways in which the media portray values, ideas, and stereotypes. And media studies would help students to understand how media messages are shaped by owners, advertisers, producers, editors, publicists, political handlers, and the many other professionals who work in what have been accurately labeled the ``consciousness industries.''

Resistance to media springs from faulty teacher training, according to Timothy Little, education professor at Michigan State University. But Professor Little thinks media studies offer ideal exercises for developing children's ``critical, systematic, and logical reasoning'' - and need to be expanded.

Little designed software that examines cigarette advertising between the 1930s and the present, and gave it to a group of teachers to test. ``They got a chance to figure out the advertising claims and social codes communicated by the ads over the decades,'' Little says. ``The teachers were able to take two steps back and look at the trends in cigarette advertising.''

Computers are powerful teaching aids for media studies, Little believes, because they let students analyze lots of media messages, identifying patterns and relationships. Kids can begin to think clearly and critically about the content and style of those messages. ``Computers are a catalyst to this kind of thinking,'' he says. ``They require that random thoughts be focused. They are a great tool for preparing kids for electronic citizenship.''

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