4. Media Education, Popular Culture, Violence

EVERY TIME we talk about the lack of knowledge and consequent lack of critical thinking on the part of the public, we return to the third main responsibility for the media crisis: the many media educators, especially at the tertiary level, who for the past twenty or more years have opted for non-critical and - mostly - pro-Hollywood and popular culture forms of media education.

On a par with the escalating crisis within the MAVM in the later 1970s, many global media educators began the fateful journey of moving away from critical teaching. Media education began to concentrate on sustaining 'popular culture', and establishing professional film and TV training courses, including with hi-tech media production facilities at many universities.

The critical thinking regarding the media which had developed during the 1960s - much of it under the auspices of Marxist teachers - was, for the most part, junked/forced out of the curriculum by the end of the 1970s. The study of TV soap operas, production of the Hollywood narrative, full-scale development of the Monoform ... and the loss of history ... had begun.

See Appendix 8 for The Teaching of Popular Culture.

Much of media education - now the mega-industry of TV, video and film production/studies courses at universities, film academies, teacher training colleges, technical training schools - and the study of mass communication at institutions of the same name - quickly became a satellite of the MAVM. The fundamental aim was to train young people to accept the mass media in a non-critical light - as neutral, useful, informative elements in the social process, and ultimately, as the means to advance their own career.

These popular adjuncts to the global education process have consequently taught many young people to reproduce the audiovisual forms and processes which I criticize in this statement. Many media teachers themselves have emerged from this form of training. My visits over the years to a large number of media schools and universities have led me to conclude that many media teachers simply do not want their students to develop a critical distance to the mass media.

This media problem has several faces. Non-critical teaching of the escapist and consumer-based media popular culture is one. The many media teachers around the world whose personal and professional prestige is vested in legitimizing their notion of 'media professionalism' - the practices of Hollywood, its language-form and ideology - is another.

Many of these teachers work with - or support - what I refer to as 'vocational media training'. VMT is the major single growth area in media education. It basically means teaching young people how to handle the switches and buttons of media technology, how to direct, edit, photograph, script, etc. Since the declared aim of vocational media training is to provide sufficient skills for the student to enter the world of the mass media, it is little wonder that this form of media education has now become a huge world-wide business. Many universities have set up TV training studios, and even secondary schools have (at least indirectly) entered the business of VMT. This type of education is rapidly replacing most other forms of media pedagogy, especially those few variants of critical media education that survived the 1980s.

The 'logic' is simple; paraphrased in my own words it is: "The world is commercial. Whether we like it or not, we are ruled by global market forces. Our responsibility to our students is to help them find work within the parameters of this ideology."

Translated literally, this means persuading (or encouraging, when persuasion is not needed) students to use moving images to manipulate their audience - and giving them the structural tools (the Monoform and the monolinear narrative structure) and the necessary ideology to do this. A key component here is the idea that a hierarchical and tautly controlled relationship between producer and audience is 'normal'.

The 'logic' continues thus: "Under no circumstances teach young people to become critical, because to do so will have three unfortunate effects: a) it will rebound on the students - marginalizing them within mainstream mass media, and making them potentially unemployable; b) it will rebound on us (teachers) - perhaps resulting in the withdrawal of support from the local media (TV equipment, facilities, etc.), and isolating us personally from the media peer-group; c) it will result in problems with administrators, who are under heavy pressure to turn universities into 'economically rational units'."

This is the ideology and these are the underlying fears. Unfortunately, many media teachers, especially in universities, have yielded to these pressures. There are, of course, media teachers who - given the choice - would work in alternative ways, but the reality is that department heads or university administrators usually will not permit it.

Many other media teachers need no external pressure whatsoever, when it comes to teaching their students to manipulate audiences. Some of them are former media professionals themselves, who have grown up with the conservative ideology of the mainstream mass media. Others are academics who have elected to support the ideology of popular culture, and who seem to genuinely believe that democracy and the mass media are not connected, except within the closed structures of the existing popular culture framework.

The end result is that thousands of global VMT teachers are causing great damage by systematically denying their students access to alternatives. They refuse to raise democratic issues with their students or to discuss moral or ethical questions pertaining to the mass media, and they are disinclined to allow their students to meet critical teachers or to hear alternative ideas.

For most VMT teachers, only mainstream Hollywood represents 'true professionalism'. In this process of teaching, students are also made to think that the public is inherently stupid - that it needs authoritarian, simplistic, rapidly-moving language forms in order to absorb (consumer) ideas from TV.

Vocational media training is probably the dominant form of film, TV and media education in the world today - and much of the existing crisis, as I describe it on these pages, stems from its application. It can be described as a 'pedagogy of fear'. By the time a student has been through this kind of media training, he/she is brain-washed - to put it bluntly - into accepting a very narrow vision of 'media professionalism', and is ready to accept the rigid confines of the professional practices which rule film and TV companies.

This means that young people continue to perpetuate the endless cycle - forcing this ideology onto the audience, and in turn onto the next generation of professionals, etc. This cycle is vigorously endorsed by the mass media, to the extent that - as a media teacher stated recently - "media education is now run entirely by the mass media".

Common reactions to the above concerns about the MAVM and media education are: "What's all the fuss about? ... The media are great, they're entertaining, you can learn a lot from them! ... There are lots of good TV documentaries ... Don't be so pessimistic!" Or, ironically, in view of the last rejoinder: "So what? It's reality. It's how things are today!"

It is important to consider the genesis of such rejoinders and perceptions. They emerge from our experience of the mass media only as we have known them during our life time, and as they continue to exist at present.

With few exceptions, broadly speaking, we have known no other audiovisual world than the present. Our references and perspectives come only from what we know of the cinema and TV, and their relationship to us at the present time. Except in relatively rare instances, our references come exclusively from the Hollywood /commercial/market forces ethos of the past 20-30 years - not from experiences with alternative forms and processes of audiovisual communication.

The circle continues in this way, with film and TV students being denied any exposure to critical and alternative views - precisely when they should be receiving a broad and rounded education - and while the media crisis steadily worsens.

If we compare media education with other forms of expression and communication (music, literature, the plastic arts, theatre, etc.), we see obvious differences in the teaching process. Inclusion of different, or non-conventional ideas and forms in the teaching of plastic arts, music, theatre and literature is considered important; alternative opinions and processes are usually respected and valued. For example, it would be unusual for art students to be denied contact with the work of Edvard Munch, simply because he painted 'oddly', or because he was considered 'controversial' in the 1890s. In a similar way, students would hardly be denied access to composers, writers or sculptors who are seen as being 'out of the ordinary'.

But the reverse rationale mostly applies in media teaching. Of course, students are sometimes shown alternative or unusual feature films and documentaries (see, for example, Appendix 10 re the teaching of Scott MacDonald in the United States), but they are more usually bound to the personal ideology of the teacher, to his/her relationship to Hollywood or the popular forms of cinema and TV. This type of pedagogical agenda (dictated by personal viewing preferences) - whether 'radical', or staunchly pro-Hollywood - is often jealously guarded by teachers. Seemingly different, they can nevertheless both be exerted equally dogmatically within the classroom, and are capable of admitting no dissenting views, especially from an outsider.

We can see therefore how the hierarchical attitude from the media towards the public - the relentless denial of meaningful participation or interchange - often begins (or is continued) in the classroom. It is clearly paralleled by a hierarchical relationship between teachers and students.

This problem is especially serious when media teachers are bent on indoctrinating students into the ideology of Hollywood and the consumerist popular culture. Here the driving force is not simply competitiveness on the part of the teacher, it is also a fundamental fear of opening the whole 'can of worms' which alternative media teaching can offer - especially once the idea of public participation is introduced.

To summarize, the responsibilities of the education sector for the present media crisis include the following:

• Mainstream media education has not only refused to allow alternative, critical forms of media pedagogy, it has supported the mass media drive towards centralization of power. This has led to the emergence of several generations of non-critical media students (citizens), and to the collapse of public debate regarding the mass media.

• The prevailing process of media education (especially at the tertiary level) has refused to use university facilities and resources to critically research the global impact of the mass media, and has instead turned many universities into clones of Hollywood production centres. Among the many areas largely ignored by the tertiary sector is the impact of the mass audiovisual media on our relationship to time (and attention span), to violence, to history.

• Media education has refused to critically analyze the severe and specific impact on society of the Monoform ... instead it has legitimized the widespread use of this manipulative language-form.

• Media education legitimized the increasing marginalization of teachers and filmmakers who tried to develop critical and alternative forms of media pedagogy during the past two decades. In line with this, in the 1980s, many university media departments began to instigate highly biased hiring practices, ensuring the employment of principally pro-popular culture and mainstream/Hollywood media teachers at universities, technical colleges and film schools. A principal practice has been the widespread refusal to openly and publicly debate issues similar to the ones raised on these pages.

• Media education has played a principal role in the escalation of media violence in recent years - by teaching potentially violent language forms such as the Monoform, and by encouraging students to adopt a non-critical attitude regarding on-screen brutality, and by extension, towards sexism, competitiveness, and other forms of aggressive human behaviour.

• Media education has frequently neglected the issue of gender equality within the media, and has not sufficiently analyzed the devastating impact of the mass audiovisual media on the perception and role of women in society.

• Media education has widely accepted most hegemonic 'populist' audiovisual cultural forces, especially those originating in American TV and cinema, and has thereby greatly weakened local or regional attempts to develop community audiovisual cultures and alternative media forms.

• Media education has refused, in broad terms, to encourage its students to adopt a critical attitude towards the consumer society, or towards the negative consequences of global free-market capitalism, i.e., exploitation, greed, economic corruption, and the despoiling of the planet. Mainstream media education has, by and large, not engaged its students in any form of critical dialogue about the social and political systems under which they live.

• Media education has refused to examine alternative forms of media practices which could have introduced a change in the balance of power between the public and the mass media. It has not encouraged its students to engage in a critical dialogue with the public by participating in pedagogical exercises involving the local community.

• Media education has not encouraged its students to examine or practise alternative or personal language forms, and has discouraged them from entering the mass media as individual, critical spirits.

In light of recent and ongoing world events, the most worrying item among the many on this list is the role of media education regarding media violence.

I have discovered, time and time again, that (unlike in history, English, peace studies, etc. departments) many media scholars, with a few notable exceptions, are either not interested in the question of media violence, or react negatively when it is criticized.

These professionals have demonstrated considerable irresponsibility in condoning on-screen violence, in denying its harmful effect, and in claiming that 'media violence does not cause actual violence'. Much of standard media education today is in fact based on the notion that conflict is good for drama: "it drives the story ... and engages the interest of the audience".

Many media teachers are even reluctant to criticize direct images of brutality on the screen - gross, highly visible, visceral acts of violence. By the late 1970s, popular culture academics began to espouse the creed that there was nothing wrong with screen brutality - a creed which ridiculed any attempt to criticize media violence as being "middle-class elitism".

This tragic lack of comprehension (let alone tolerance) by media educators fostered a climate which gave the MAVM a free hand in desensitizing us to violence, to an unprecedented degree. In this respect as well, complicity (even if unintentional) between pro-Hollywood media education and the violent MAVM has had a devastating impact on the global culture, and has a direct relationship to the crisis we now face.

Part of the problem has been an unwillingness by media teachers to discuss the structural violence inherent in the Monoform itself - to have their students understand that violence occurs not only in images of abuse on the screen, but that it is part and parcel of the standard filmic language-form used by the mass media.

The "banalization of evil," an expression originally used by political theorist Hannah Arendt regarding bureaucrats working in order to administer and perfect the machinery of the Nazi perpetrated Holocaust, has reached a new dimension in recent decades: society's acceptance as 'normal', of levels of violence and aggression which once might have been regarded with great shock and concern.

As I have stressed, the problem of violence has been seriously aggravated by the upsurge in teaching media popular culture. The head of screen studies at an Australian national training school, stated a few years ago: "I, like millions of others, go to see films such as Mad Max - and indeed I encourage my students to see them - not because I like violence. But because I like fantasy violence. The difference is huge. One entertains. The other kills. And it's incumbent upon filmmakers to understand there is a difference."

To believe that media violence has no harmful effect requires the most amazing juggling of logic, and flies in the face of endless evidence to the contrary. As well as the many documented instances of brutality on the screen resulting in 'copy-cat' acts of violence in real life, and along with studies on the effects of media violence by social scientists and educators, there is also probably a vast potential store of information from the PUBLIC, testifying to the impact that media violence has had on them personally.

In the end, however, we really know appallingly little about this critical 'street' evidence, simply because the mass media and mainstream media education exhibit little interest in listening to the public, let alone developing something like a databank of public reaction to media violence, or imparting the information to students.

And yet, ironically enough, neither media professionals nor most media scholars would dismiss the notion that the mass media do have an effect on the way we think and feel! A classic example is TV advertising: few media professionals and academics would deny that TV shapes peoples' opinions, including causing large numbers of them to buy into the consumer society (otherwise, why spend untold millions of dollars on producing TV commercials?). And few would claim that TV soap-operas/serials don't impact on the audience.

But these same professionals - with an almost shameless lack of logic - would deny the effect of the violence utilized by the media, even though its staging has become one of the most systematic aspects of media production today, involving the development of costlier technology and expertise than that used in advertising and soap-operas.

The incongruity continues when one considers the issue of smoking cigarettes. It has finally been admitted, even by tobacco companies, that TV advertising motivates young people to buy cigarettes, and that inhaling cigarette smoke causes lung cancer. Nowhere, however, is there a parallel acknowledgment by the mass media or many media educators vis-à-vis a comparable cause and effect relationship regarding media violence - namely, that it can lead people to inflict harm on themselves and others.

By the same token, the media and most media educators refuse to discuss the possibility that sustained media violence might create a general social environment of aggressive and irrational thinking (resulting in insecurity, anxiety, paranoia, etc.), and that it might thereby play a role in motivating people's political decisions. Including (among countless other examples) in the nearly automatic support in America and Europe for the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan, in October 2001 (an event which has now been almost completely forgotten).

The criticisms I have made thus far in this chapter come from my firm belief that the widespread lack of public knowledge and discourse on the role of the mass media (especially in the post-September 11 environment), is in itself an apt indictment of mainstream media education.

At the same time, obviously not all media education falls into this category. It is possible to find, especially on the Internet, academics who raise many critical questions regarding the role of the contemporary media. And here and there one finds teachers who are trying to bring a critical sense to their students' understanding of the mass media.

But in almost all cases, these teachers are exceptions to the rule, and most of them struggle to survive under very difficult circumstances. They are often hard-pressed in their institutions, most of which demand 'cost-effective' education - in this case, students who are trained (traditionally and non-critically) to enter the ranks of the MAVM.

Another serious problem is the marginalization inside the teaching sector. Critical media teachers often work within a professional environment which is antagonistic to their own aspirations and teaching methods. In my own experience (hardly unique) as a visiting media teacher, there have been occasions - especially in recent years - when I have been able to arrange to discuss the media crisis with film and TV students at universities and schools, only to arrive and find that the media instructors were deliberately absent!

I would also sometimes arrive to find a mere handful of students, and a media teacher claiming that no-one was interested - in a manner indicating that the teacher himself might in fact have dissuaded the students from attending.

On one occasion, I was invited to speak to a general audience at a well-known British public school. I subsequently discovered that none of the film students had attended - the film teacher had either not informed them of my visit, or had directed them not to attend. He himself sat arms akimbo, glowering at me from the middle of the audience. When I referred to the Monoform, he blurted out words to the effect that there was no need to teach this stuff to his students, because there was nothing wrong with the Monoform.

During a lecture tour in Sweden, I arranged to visit an outlying rural school. When I finally arrived, I found that the media teachers had been "called away" - thereby evading any discussion, by simply being absent.

These events might sound somewhat 'spectacular', but they are very representative of some of the reactions I have encountered over the past 30 years during my visits to media courses in schools, universities and teacher training colleges in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, the UK, Canada and the United States.

I would hazard to guess that much of the academic resistance to the work I have been doing is due to insecurity on the part of teachers - especially those who were (or still are) teaching film and TV using the old Hollywood / popular culture imperatives, and who did not care for my views on media issues which they themselves were teaching in a non-critical manner. The same could be true for teachers who claimed to be 'radical', but were in fact offended by my criticisms of media education.

The director of a radio, film and television department at a large British university was openly disturbed at my proposal to speak to the students. Although I had requested a very nominal fee (ca. £100 = USD $150), he replied that this was "prohibitively expensive", though the remainder of his letter made it clear that my fee had nothing to do with his real problem. He referred to my letter thus: " ...the generalised criticisms of the work being done in higher education in this country seem to me to be both ill-informed and patronising. It is depressing to read a letter which seems so arrogant from a filmmaker whose films I admire. Your dismissal of the work being done in higher education in the media can only demoralise those of us who might have been happy to work alongside you towards a common goal."

I responded by saying that my criticisms of media education were certainly not intended to be arrogant, and that they reflected my genuine concerns about the media crisis. I suggested that my visit could still be useful, in order to stimulate debate with his students, and I proposed waiving my fee. The director never replied.

I also wrote three letters to the head of documentary film at another major university in the same city in the UK. This teacher never replied at all. Instead, a teacher of political studies at the same university offered to arrange a debate with his own students. I recall walking down a corridor on my way to this debate, and passing editing rooms where the documentary film students were bent over their equipment - they had either not been informed, or were instructed not to attend my talk with the political science students.

When I think back on these kinds of visits, an expression in nuclear-war-speak - 'studied avoidance' - comes to mind. And the blocks extend not only to one's teachings and ideas, but also to one's films. My film work, for example, now appears to be off-limits in Sweden - in Scandinavia in general. The global peace film, THE JOURNEY, produced by the Swedish peace movement in 1983-86, is never shown there. Not on TV, not by schools, not by media teaching institutions - nowhere. THE FREETHINKER, produced at the Nordens Folk High School outside of Stockholm in 1992-94, is shown even less frequently...

THE FREETHINKER, a 4.5 hour biographical film of the Swedish dramatist, August Strindberg, is a strong example of students working in an alternative way - it was produced with a team of ca. 20 'folk high school' media students. Although (or perhaps because) this work is unique in the annals of the Swedish education system, it is now boycotted - as is the rest of my work - by the same education system. Even the major media teacher training college in Stockholm declines to use THE FREETHINKER; the Swedish education system refuses to touch it, or acknowledge its existence!

Of course the above do not represent the totality of my experiences with schools and universities. I cite them as examples of the strong resistance which does exist in much of media education, and which must have a profound effect upon those teachers struggling to maintain critical forms of media pedagogy.

On the positive side, there have also been occasions over the past 30 years when I have debated with students without interference or resistance, including on a number of very supportive instances when teachers have arranged full length courses, often including the TV news-broadcasting project I refer to elsewhere.

In this respect, I wish to especially acknowledge David Hanan of Monash University, Australia; Roger Horrocks of the University of Auckland, New Zealand; Birgitta Östlund of the Nordens Folk High School in Sweden (who also produced THE FREETHINKER); Lasse Euler of the Red Cross Folk High School and Lena Israel of the Halmstad Högskol (University), also in Sweden; Peter Harcourt of Carleton University, and Peter Baxter of Queen's University, both in Canada; Scott MacDonald of Utica College, New York; Ken Nolley of Willamette University, Oregon; Joseph Gomez, then at Wayne State College, Michigan. The staff at the film and video department of York University in Toronto have also been very supportive of my work. Ken Nolley of Willamette University, and Nigel Young, of the Peace Studies Program in Colgate University, New York, have also done extensive work with THE JOURNEY.

Here I would like to mention the work of Lena Israel, a film studies teacher at the University of Halmstad in Sweden. For years, Lena has been analyzing the differences between the Monoform and the 'epic' open structures used by filmmakers such as Andrej Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog. She outlines her theories in her book, "Film Dramaturgy and Daily Thinking" (Filmdramaturgi och vardagstänkande, Gothenburg, 1991).

Essentially, Lena believes that a certain type of film dramaturgy may lead the spectator to become passive - since its structure does not allow any active participation in the creation - while another type may potentially activate. She is also concerned by the fact that our reality seems to be increasingly fictionalized, due to the degree to which our knowledge is the direct result of the output of the mass audiovisual media. See Appendix 9.

Scott MacDonald, teacher and film historian living in New York state, has written a series of books documenting the work of alternative filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, J.J. Murphy, Yvonne Rainer, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and many others. In Appendix 10 I quote from one of Scott's articles, in which he describes the alternative work of three American avant-garde filmmakers, and gives examples of ways in which film can be used in alternative forms and processes which have nothing to do with the Monoform and the Hollywood narrative.

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© Peter Watkins 2016