|Notes on Ellsworth E 'Educational Media, Ideology, and
the Presentation of Knowledge Through Popular Cultural Forms' in Giroux
H, Simon R et al (eds) Popular Culture Schooling and Everyday Life,
Mass.: Begin and Garvey Publishers Ltd.(chapter 3)
Popular cultural forms are NOT neutral carriers of educational content but '...inflect curricular content with changes in meaning and significance' (48). There has long been a recognition that text books, curriculum packs and the organisation of classrooms select some ways of making sense of the world and then 'present them as objective, factual, school knowledge', and this has even led to a politics of educational knowledge, with struggles to reintroduce more critical themes.
This insight needs to be extended into the intersections of popular media and school curricula too --e.g. how popular media select and order concepts, how they feature the modelling of behaviour, and how they legitimate school knowledge (e.g. by adding 'positive connotations [of] leisure, entertainment and …pleasures'). Students also construct their own intersections, of course, to 'elaborate on, resist, subvert or escape' the subjectivities that schools try to construct for them. Generally though 'all popular cultural forms are [also] knowledge forms' (48) [and there are references here and later to Foucault on the linking of power and knowledge].
The classic 'educational research' concerns of work on educational TV are limited to measurable gains and isolated effects. The classic work in Media Studies ignored children's TV as too low status, formulaic, banal (i.e lacking great auteurs). The new interests in Media Studies on audiences, contexts of reception and subjectivities is restoring the balance, though -- but this work still needs to be applied to the specifics of school knowledge and popular culture.
A way forward can be found by considering concepts like 'knowledge forms', 'modes of address', 'hidden curriculum' and 'modes of reception'. There is also useful early work to review -- like material from the 1940s on how popular dramatisation techniques might be applied to educational film by using classic narrative structures to hold children's attention and involve them, getting some identificaton with the social nature of the characters, obtaining emotional involvement and so on (Ellsworth cites Hoban C (1946) Movies That Teach, New York: Dryden Press).
Popular techniques are apparent in Square One TV (made by Children's Television Workshop, who also make Sesame Street), designed to teach school maths by using parodies and popular genres -- quiz shows, rock video etc. The programme has been widely praised for generating enthusiasms and encouraging positive attitudes to maths. But there are assumptions made about the audience (that they are too stupid to do maths), [and about maths -- that 'maths' equals 'school maths'], and there are unexamined problems with using popular forms.
We can get at these through the concept 'knowledge form', which draws attention to ' the organisation of time and space, the movements of encoded meanings at different rates of speed, the definitions of what counts as knowledge, assumptions about the learning process, the types of attention required, ambience, style, and the structuring of personal implications' (from Michael Apple's book Education and Power, London: ARK Paperbacks, 1982) (52). The form of knowledge is affected by the general process of commodification of knowledge, which can result in passive learning for example.
Ellsworth's own interest is in dramatisation as a knowledge form. It features cause and effect chains, 'psychological' and individualised accounts, good and bad [simple] characters [all of which are 'ideological' for radical educators]. There are also hidden commercial motivations for the style. When used in educational formats, there are specific differences -- e.g. the characters have to be motivated by an expert possessing lots of approved knowledge (54). Thus expert knowledge is depicted as a better form -- rational, linear and generalisable', split into different stages or sections and individualised, the property of experts who resolve problems (rather than say the characters working it out from the evidence). There is a realist structure to the narrative [i.e. one claiming to be able to deliver knowledge about the real world]. Sometimes this is achieved by the classic device of letting the characters make a mess of things on screen, using their (flawed) knowledge, while a narrator (often off-screen) explains where they went wrong and points to the 'correct' (expert) approach. Naturally, success and happiness invariably follow, clearly and visibly for all to see on screen, when the expert's words of wisdom are heeded.
Any contradictions, which are chronically likely, have to be managed In Ellsworth's wonderful example of a sex education film, the privileged, predominantly 'biological', account cannot explain the clearly 'social' aspects of real sexuality ('Mary's emotional attraction to other women, Bob's interest in pornography') (56). Luckily, these contradictions just disappear 'of their own accord' -- e.g as the characters just move on to another 'stage'. [I personally love those moments best, although I have more experience withthem as a live performer -- airily dismissing apparent problems, promising to turn to them later and then forgetting, assuming malice in the questioner so the question can be ruled out of order, adopting the world-weary air of one who learns to live with contradictions, or using whatever personal authority one has to invite students to just believe in my preferred answer].
In terms of modes of address and hidden curriculum, the viewer is being engaged in order to gain pleasure, a classic 'spectatorial' approach [ i.e. students are mere spectators not full participants]. The widespread use of melodrama and simplifications assume the audience are ignorant and ill-informed, and must be enlightened by 'correct knowledge' [there is a powerful feminist version of this pointing to the way TV often addresses women as airheads]. The style assumes that it is OK to use manipulation and power to achieve this enlightenment -- which is, of course, based on a particular partisan view (ultimately rooted in economic and political interests).
Ellsworth goes on to consider the work of Kuhn on educational films about venereal disease (Kuhn A (1985) The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul) as an example. These films took on forms like melodramas to make their point -- a range of 'social types' were depicted, each with different sexual practices, and the films set out to indicate which were 'good' and which were 'bad' -- not in terms of morality but in terms of being well- or ill-informed. A scientific discourse, a combination of notions of 'medicine and social purity' (59) delivers the information. The doctor who speaks the discourse is clearly established as an authority figure, seeing all the action, dominating the accounts, appearing in high-status locations and so on. Viewers are invited to share this moral knowledgeable discourse, to become 'moral subjects'.
On Sesame Street, Ellsworth agrees with Mattelart that there is a preoccupation to gain interest and attention via the 'information blitzes' found in advertising, which 'organises desire' (instead of tryiong to constrain) and turns students into consumers. A 'seduction' ensues, where kids are integrated into a mercantile culture and its universe of signs, via a pleasurable offering of rhythm and diversity. The same sort of analysis might be applied to films or programmes made specifically for viewing in schools -- to manipulate desire rather than use coercion.
On 'reception contexts', Ellsworth agrees that there must be some sort of negotiation of meanings by the audience, but argues that this is by no means a negotiation between equals [especially for kids, it might be argued]. Instead, and citing Hodge's and Tripp's classic (Hodge R and Tripp D (1986) Children and Television: a semiotic approach, Cambridge: Polity Press), concrete meanings are fixed in discussion, produced as accepted from a huge set of possible meanings - and these discussions feature marked differentials of power between, say, kids and teachers [especially, one might add, in school settings where one party is assessed by the other]. Texts too have an 'epistemic bias', or a 'preferred meaning' which is much easier to read.
The main conclusion of Hodge's and Tripp's work is to favour a radical
type of media education, aiming to build on children's experiences of TV
and their 'readings'. As in Masterman's approach (Masterman L (1985) Teaching
the Media, London: Comedia), this approach celebrates different meanings
rather than trying to police them, and an awareness of real social differences
in the audience should result [although I must say , Masterman's faith
in the ability of all parties to develop an ensuing 'genuine dialogue'
seems a tad optimistic']. Ellsworth hopes that by being explicit about
the matters she covers under things like 'mode of address' and 'knowledge
form', students will be able to understand how 'educational media attempt
to organise learning experiences in ways that constrain or facilitate their
abilities and desires to change' (64).