Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On the Importance of Media Literacy

We teach our children to spell, we teach them to take tests, we teach them about the imperceptible atoms and molecules that make up the material of our world, and yet we teach them next to nothing about the media that saturates their daily lives.

Who has Tom Cruise married most recently? How many children does Britney Spears have? Why do we know these things and how does this knowledge affect us?

What does it mean to see, every evening, all the conflicting interests of television programs and commercial advertisements juxtaposed one against the other for hours on end?

I firmly believe that, even as we teach our children the language of daily discourse, it is equally important to teach them the language of motion pictures.

Much of our cultural discourse is carried out in this second language, and given the number of television outlets in our country -- in homes, in bars, in storefronts, on busses, and now on telephones and computer screens -- literacy in this second language is more important than ever to appreciate the responsibilities of citizenship and informed consumer behavior.

The basic language of the motion picture dates to Soviet times: the montage theory of Sergei Eisenstein is the foundation of almost every edited motion picture sequence. His theory was built upon the work of Lev Kuleshov, who was in turn deeply influenced by Ivan Pavlov's view of Behaviorist psychology.

These names are a part of history, but they also live with us every day. These names are as important to understanding our culture as the names of Plato, Aristotle, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These names have shaped our civilization in dramatic ways.

We now live in an age when multinational corporations, who pledge no national allegiances whatsoever, depend on Eisenstein, Kuleshov, and Pavlov for their revenue as much as they depend on Henry Sheffer and Alan Turing for the ability to manufacture consumer electronics. As citizens and consumers, we must ensure that all of our children share an equal entitlement to the heritage of these names, that these names do not remain the sole purview of the profiteers behind the curtain of our collective televised understanding.

As much as we depend on John Locke for our concept of liberty, and as much as we depend on Mahatma Gandhi to inspire us to struggle for peace, we depend on our educational institutions to provide our children with the means to succeed in this world. While we concern ourselves that no child be left behind in our schools, we must concern ourselves with a literacy of media, lest we leave behind a whole generation. As it stands, there are few teachers who understand the language of the media, and this is to the great detriment of our nation.

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