Critical Summary of
The Past, Present, and Future of Media Literacy Education
Renee Hobbs and Amy Jensen
In this article Hobbs and Jensen seek to reconcile “the ‘protectionist’ and ‘empowerment’ wings of the media literacy education community” (1) by exploring the history of Media Literacy Education and re-evaluating what its values and goals should be. The “protectionist” approach to media literacy education regards media literacy primarily as a tool and an extension for “the practice of rhetoric” (2). The “empowerment” approach regards media literacy as an essential component of contemporary “digital citizenship.” The article also “attempts to counter various misunderstandings among non-specialists” (2) which view Media Literacy Education (MLE) as “leftist,” “anti-capitalist” “cynical” and “anti-establishment.” The article defends MLE by engages in in self-critique of these “warp threads” in the history of MLE and affirming the core value that MLE should be about teaching students how to think for themselves.
The article gives us an overview of the history of MLE in order “explore where we have been to know where we are going” when developing MLE pedagogy so as to avoid the mistakes of the past. Enthusiasm for MLE or rather “film literacy” began in the early 1920s when children began to go to the nickelodeon theatres and “John Dewey explained that learners’ lived experiences and concerns about their own day-to-day environment are at the root of the meaning-making process”… (2). If film had become part of children’s day-to-day experience, Educators saw a great potential in films to be used as educational tools. However, the “Visual Instruction Movement” failed because educators resisted the attempts by business leaders and film companies to use them to sell their films, products and visual technologies to schools and students and MLE became focused on making children aware of “the language of film” providing them with “‘cognitive defense’ against the most overt and disturbing forms of sensationalism and propaganda” (3) in film and radio.
In the 1960s MLE shifted towards a Do-it-Yourself approach that focused on teaching children how to make their own films. This approach did not last because it fell into a “technicist trap” that focused too much on learning how to use the technology to make a film itself which took too much time from reading and critical analysis of films and written texts. Later educators worried that they were enabling children to make “dangerous” content. It was not until the 70s that MLE “began to be recognized as a critical practice of citizenship, part of the exercise of democratic rights and civil responsibilities” (3). This view of MLE and citizenship rested on Lev Vygotsky and Paolo Freire notion of literacy “as a socio-cultural practice that embodies, reflects, and refracts power relations” (3). This view of literacy encourages an student-centered approach to teaching which teaches students to think for themselves through discussion of “issues that are perceived to be relevant and meaningful to learners.”
This approach was also highly critical of racial and minority stereotyping in commercial media and found inspiration in the publication of former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson’s book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, which “denounced the news media underrepresentation and negative depiction of African-Americans and Hispanics.” However by the mid-1990s, educators and the public began to worry that MLE was becoming media activism and political “leftist” indoctrination of students. MLE’s soul searching brought media educators to the consensus that “To be truly literate means being able to use the dominant symbol systems of the culture or personal, aesthetic, cultural, social, and political goals” (5).
The relationship between MLE and “digital citizenship” is outlined in the Core Principles of Media Literacy Education in the United States (2007). The Core Principles explains that media literacy “is an expanded conceptualization of literacy” that requires that we “develop informed, reflective, and engaged participants essential to a democratic society” that MLE “requires integrated, interactive, and repeated practice” (6), that MLE places a premium NOT only on “tool competence,” but on the critical engagement with media “forms and content and its impact on lifestyles, social norms, and values” (5). MLE educators should NOT assume that students already have the skills to produce media content (since studies have shown that while most students can passively view media content those who produce it tend to be the children of the educated and well-off) and should focus on teaching them “the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence to deploy [media] tools toward [their] own ends” (6).
I think that Hobbs and Jensen’s most valuable contribution lies in their somewhat conflicted exposure of “warp trends” in the application of MLE which deviated from the current ideal of media citizenship or “digital citizenship” as well as their admission that not all technologies are good teaching tools. Hobbs and Jensen seem qualified to talk about what the future of print can do for democracy and they seem to conclude that technology does not automatically yield greater exercise of democratic rights and responsibilities. Usefully, Hobbs and Jensen highlight that new technologies may not always promote MLE and that educators need to push for the adaptation of these technologies and Copyright laws to make them accessible for classroom instruction. Hobbs and Jensen would say that the future of what people can do with print and how they can use it to exercise citizenship will depend on teachers having access to the technology and on their teaching students not just how to use the technology but how to think critically so that they will have something to say and the confidence to say it.