Media Studies is, of course, a Mickey Mouse subject. It’s easier to pass than other subjects. It’s not a rigorous preparation for university. It’s “soft”. I’m not taking the mickey here; Michael (Mickey?) Gove says so:
“…it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors. But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.”
Let me nail my colours to the mast. When I first started as a Head of English in 2002, one of the first things I did was implement a KS4 course where every student studied English, English Literature, and Media Studies. Almost every student triple-certificated after two years. And I didn’t do this to push my school up the league tables, I did it from a profoundly held ideological standpoint that media studies is a curriculum entitlement and a fundamental necessity for young people today.
Let me explain. This isn’t an just argument about effects theory, which attempts to teach young people how to avoid being brainwashed by the pernicious commercial and ideological messages of a sinister conspiracy imposed on the masses by “the media”. Such an argument is reductive and patronising, casting media audiences as passive couch potatoes without an independent idea of their own. It is this kind of approach that makes for easy headlines and provides a simple scapegoat, such as when Barack Obama called for research into the effects of violent video games as part of his gun control package in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It isn’t just a protective discipline.
Primarily, for me, media studies is about creativity. Back in 2002 I was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunity in the existing GCSE English and English Literature specifications, and included Media Studies to provide a creative outlet for the students. Simply put, media provided them with the opportunity to make things. Since then, Web 2.0 has meant that nearly all of us are media creatives. Every Facebook status, every tweet, blog, vlog, pin, Instagram or Flickr share is a creative act through the media. David Gauntlett calls it “the make and connect agenda“; the young people we teach every day are not slavishly sat in front of the television of an evening, devouring commercial messages with square eyes and a blank expression. They are instead constantly creating, sharing, and self-representing, often clumsily and with little regard for the process and its potential impact on themselves and others. The need for a subject which frameworks their understanding of this is more pertinent now than ever.
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of an understanding of the world, either. It is essential that young people understand how important the relationship between news and politics is, how much the friendships between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson matter. How the Rupert Murdoch empire controls not just The Sun but wants to control Sky too. How it’s no accident that James Bond’s phone is a Sony. Why it’s important that Google owns YouTube or that iPhones only work with iTunes. That the PCC is a self-regulating body and what the Leveson inquiry is all about. To understand media institutions is to understand the commercial and political structures of the country we live in. This, surely, is an educational entitlement.
I am proud to be a teacher of a Mickey Mouse subject. A study of Disney can lead into a history of the representation of the role of women from domestic servant to independent role model. It is a brilliant case study in the commodification of childhood, branding, and a horizontally integrated company. The narrative control, intertextuality and sophistication of films like Enchanted or the Toy Story trilogy provide a rich and rewarding experience on multiple levels in a way which the modern novel is struggling to match.
Sir Ken Robinson, in his Changing Education Paradigms speech, famously explains that the education system has to prepare young people for jobs which don’t yet exist in economies we cannot predict. There are young people like Charlie McDonnell and Tom Ridgwell currently making a good living from creating YouTube videos. I was lucky enough to teach Jack and Dean – for A-Level Media Studies – whose 11 million video views and 214,000 subscribers give them a bigger reach than most TV programmes. These young people are doing a job that most people still don’t understand in an economy that nobody thought existed. They are an example of young people making, creating and connecting, and forging a brand new career path to fit – the model of a new educational paradigm.
My triple-cert course lasted until the new model for GCSE English was introduced in 2010. At that point it was no longer possible to fit it into the time constraints, and the new specs for GCSE English Language incorporated more work on multi-modal texts as part of its core business which went some way to mollify my misgivings. We pushed Media out into the options, where it promptly recruited three groups. (I’m still amazed the curriculum deputy let me do it – it must have been like dropping a bomb into the options pool.) Yet now the proposed new national curriculum for English KS4 excises any mention of the multi-modal, removing any last vestige of reference to the moving image or to the flexible, dynamic way that modern writing and reading is developing through hyperlinks and embedded media. Whilst this sat within English, I felt more at ease. Without it, I don’t see English preparing young people for the types of texts they will be reading and creating as they become adults.
I am not the first to attempt a defence of media studies in the face of criticism. There is even a collection of defences far more academic and impressive than mine at the Manifesto for Media Education site, including coruscating pieces from David Buckingham, Julian MacDougall and Cary Bazalgette amongst many other luminaries. For me, media studies is an entitlement. Young people are connecting, creating, using, and innovating in media every waking hour; it is incumbent on educators to support, cherish and develop their understanding of the processes in which they are engaged to the best of our ability.