Dramatising human tragedy bad for pupils

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
The sensationalising of real-life stories into pseudo-cinematic experiences and the effect it has on our pupils.

I feel concerned about how major events in the lives of ordinary people are played out in public. The sensationalising of real-life stories into pseudo-cinematic experiences has a negative effect on our pupils. Many are already inured to wanton bloodshed by playing aggressive computer games, but there is always hope that they will still recognise reality because news programmes should present the facts without embellishments.

We presume news is reported with objectivity that sets it apart from the gratuitous violence of on-screen games, whose titles are a frightening herald to their content. Such presumption is optimistic.

The recent tragedies involving Derrick Bird in Cumbria and Raoul Moat (pictured) in Tyneside apparently had millions of us glued to our television screens like voyeurs. Viewing killing sprees has become a spectator sport and, when we switched off our sets on the Friday evening during the Rothbury stand-off, it was because there was little action, rather than any noble insight that we were ogling at the misery of others.

Television news channels, with their message alerts blazing on our screens, add to the bizarre feeling that we are just watching trailers for violent films, rather than staring down a lens at real life. None of these concerns stops me as a teacher using such footage as discussion stimuli, but I have reservations about it.

Take 911. In how many classrooms is the dramatic footage of the planes flying into the Twin Towers played and replayed? It fits so many learning possibilities. What are the factors that drive the perpetrators of these deeds to such violence? Do we examine the political elements or the psychological components of the human beings who have apparently lost all sense of human decency? What offers the best classroom experiences for our young people and, if we can't detect educational worth, are we as guilty as the news channels of spectator voyeurism? The footage of 911 does command a total hush from pupils, but is it right for me to show such desperately distressing pictures to them?

Maybe it's justifiable if we excavate the complexity of the issues. Reaching below the surface and addressing all we find is difficult for educators. It is easier to line up obvious solutions and simplify to the point of falsification, which is the antithesis of what we aim to do. In studying the painful aspects of human nature, we offer our pupils a meaningful opportunity to see beyond the shocking headlines but outside the easy shallowness of exploitative journalism.

Pupils are engaged by the human elements of tragic events - for example, some relatives of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania before reaching its apparent target in Washington, claimed they unequivocally knew their husbands and sons would have taken action to tackle the hijackers. On the other hand, friends and relatives of people accused of heinous crimes often insist they know they could never have committed such an act.

Explaining nihilistic events is as important as celebrating the meaning and value of human lives, but we have lost the will to do it. Nor can we blame the media for confusing human tragedy with the fiction of the movies, because we, the public, have created the monster which can only be satiated with undiluted gore.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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