Beyond literary labels;Opinion

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Media studies should not be the blunt edge of philistinism, says Eleanor Thomson

In her column on June 18, Marj Adams invited us to consider the images English teachers evoke. My own recollection from the early Sixties is dominated by black-cloaked figures who were personifications of narrow-mindedness.

The "omnibus" school (junior and senior secondary contained within one overcrowded building) where I spent three years of my life learning little from my distinctly utilitarian education among the pots and pans of the "domestic science" classes, was in a tiny town not so far from Glasgow. I now realise that the school was a cauldron of class prejudice and generalised teaching inefficiency.

I could throw the thesaurus at one woman in particular: she was biased, insular, intolerant, opinionated, petty, prejudiced, short-sighted in every way and had an affected North Kelvinside accent. She greatly resented teaching children who had failed their "qualy", openly viewing them as socially and intellectually inferior. She made it her duty to instil her own particular brand of manners into these snotty-nosed, working-class charges.

As one of the "failures", I remember having to endure a lecture about meal-time etiquette and, worse, a lesson on our place in society. Her own potted sociological theory was dominated by her fixed ideas about social stratification. The views of psychometrists such as Sir Cyril Burt that intelligence was a highly heritable trait which was innate, fixed and general no doubt reinforced her line of argument.

Nevertheless, to be baldly told that you are on the scrap-heap because you are in C-stream classes was shocking. I could never forget her words: "The As and the Bs," she enunciated, "are the salt of the earth. The Cs - you people - and the Ds will, however, still serve some useful purpose in life. You will be the factory bench workers and the shop girls. But the As and the Bs - they are the people you will have to respect, the doctors, the lawyers, the professional people of this world."

Besides being told that I couldn't possibly have thought of the ending I had written for a composition, and that I must have stolen the idea, this is all that I remember of her teaching. Sad, isn't it?

Why am I telling you this? My reason lies in a derogatory comment that Marj Adams made about media studies. The two are linked because, if nothing else, my English teacher taught me how to recognise narrow-mindedness. I don't think that narrow-mindedness belongs in any classroom. Furthermore, the English classroom should be a place for celebrating the wonderful diversity of communication available to us today, including the study of mass media.

Poetry, prose and drama are rightfully revered as vehicles for human expression but they, nevertheless, encourage a very narrow view of "literacy". It is believed that if one is "cultured", one will be familiar with the greatest works of literature, music and art.

We could, however, understand nothing of the finest works if it were not for the human ability to interpret and use signs to communicate meaning. We "read" not only words but pictures and sound by decoding signs in accordance with our own cultural knowledge.

We understand that letters on a page should produce certain sounds and meanings. We understand that brush strokes of coloured oils on canvas represent something in a real or imaginary world. Photographs, television and film can be included in the same logical process.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the French linguist who taught at Geneva University early this century, believed that language is made up of signs which communicate meanings. He also believed that other things, apart from language, could communicate meanings.

An American philosopher, Charles Peirce, held similar ideas. But so did Aristotle and so did Hippocrates, who is recorded as having attributed certain physical changes in a patient's appearance as being signs of illness. The idea, therefore, was not new.

Roland Barthes, a French critic, famously adopted and built on the foundations of Saussure and Peirce's teachings, and it is his work which is seminal to the critical approach adopted for media studies. So, interestingly enough, the intellectual apparatus for studying the much-maligned mass media came from linguistics and philosophy.

What is so terrible, therefore, about bringing a much wider view of "being literate" into the classroom? The imagery produced by the skilful manipulation of words in Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum Est is no less powerful than the imagery produced by the skilful manipulation of the camera in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

The difference is that one is viewed as "literature" and carries all the accompanying cultural baggage, while the other carries the label philistinism and the belief that someone who enjoys a feature film in the cinema must have uncultivated tastes.

Sad, isn't it?

Eleanor Thomson taught in secondary schools and is now a further education lecturer in English, communication and media studies.

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