William James once made a remark on what constitutes the humanistic subject.
He said, “you can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.”
Humanistic or romantic?
I thought about the quote in terms of the perspective teachers give when they educate our young ones about media technologies.
Because humanistic approach and historical perspective won’t suffice to give a clear and objective understanding of the subject of media technologies.
Moreover, the current choices for a perspective, ones that I have witnessed, are mainly two.
The first one presents media technologies in a humanistic (romantic) form, by referring “to the successive achievements of the geniuses” to which media technologies owe their existence.
The second perspective demonizes media technologies, by focusing on their current or possible negative effects on us.
Neither of these approaches is fair when only one is applied.
The first one promotes a romantic view of how media technologies were brought about, while the second one rejects, or avoids accrediting, any possible benefits technologies contribute to our lives.
And that’s where teaching could be subjective, dangerous even.
To the untrained mind.
An alternative is to present the facts and figures about media technologies, which means, to borrow James’ quote, “not taught thus” [not giving them a humanistic value] media technologies become hardware connections across a piece of land.
That, nevertheless, will still leave young people illiterate about media technologies’ meanings, uses, and impacts.
In “The end of education”, Neil Postman had suggested that, “we could improve the quality of teaching overnight, as it were, if math teachers were assigned to teach art, art teachers science, science teachers English.”
What about the teachers teaching media and technologies?
Who are they, to begin with?
Graduates in journalism?
Personal and social development teachers?
And who will swap with them?
Media literacy is an extremely important subject and should be given bigger credit in high schools.
I attended classes in media education in many private, church, and state schools in Malta.
In the classes on media-related subjects, teachers often stressed on the negative side to media technologies – from the existence of child pornographers to cyber bullying – while the benefits were often squeezed into a minute slot.
The irony is that the very lesson would have been provided in many ways – from the printed material used in class, to the audio-visual, to the web content displays – thanks to technology itself.
Of course, that is never pointed out.
I understand that, from the adult point of view, we try to protect our kids by stating the worst that could happen while they are online, but the chances are that kids are either going to get scared unrealistically (which may lead to something as undesired), or they will reject the threats altogether and still do what they want.
The subject of media technologies should be neither romanticised, nor demonised, but presented by giving it humanistic value, yes, as William James has suggested, supported with facts from scientific research, negative as well as positive.
Actually, not even so much dry material.
Most of all, when it comes to media technologies, kids should be active participants in the lessons – whether, by presenting their own case studies, or, by simply asking – because they are the direct recipients and the users of media technologies we’re concerned about.
By sharing their own views and experiences, kids will guide their teacher into identifying the gaps in their media literacies.