Review - Books - The window of experience

4th March 2011 at 00:00

Young People, Popular Culture and Education

By Chris Richards



Look back on your teacher training days, whether your course was a CertEd, BEd or PGCE, and the chances are that the dominant subjects covered in the theory side of the course were the sacred quartet of psychology, sociology, history and philosophy. More liberal course contents might have strayed as far as economics and comparative education, or even religion and sustainability issues.

But what will almost certainly have been evident is, in Chris Richards's words, "significant neglect of the cultures of children and young people". The reason for this, he suggests, is that for the designers of the courses and their accompanying core texts, "education studies is not necessarily about the education of young people". Instead, he argues, it is "lifelong and far exceeds the framework of assumptions associated with schooling from five to 19 years".

This seems an extraordinary statement, not because it is of itself untrue but because the majority of people on education studies courses are likely to be prospective teachers who are there precisely because they want to be involved in the education of young people. One might, therefore, have thought that their needs would have taken precedence over the niceties of academic distinctions and debate. But it was not, and largely still is not, so.

It is Richards's aim in this book to put this right, or at least to stake a claim that cultural studies has a vital and legitimate part to play in education studies. The case he makes is that education studies needs "to acknowledge and make space for the exploration of the cultural experience of children and young people, and particularly those children and young people that students taking education studies once were".

In other words, that the people taking the courses should have the opportunity to explore their own childhood experiences alongside those of others. Education courses concerned with children and childhood - whatever next?

Facetiousness aside, the framework within which Richards pitches his surely unassailable argument is itself highly academic. A lot of time is spent defining terms and reviewing previous literature, as well as quoting at length from his own writings on media studies in the 1980s and '90s. Young People, Popular Culture and Education is, then, an important contribution to academic debate in urging a move away from the dominance of history, psychology, sociology and philosophy and making a very plausible case for the inclusion of influences from women's studies, psychoanalysis, autobiographical writing and cultural studies. "Too much is neglected if only the relatively traditional disciplines are acknowledged," as Richards so nicely puts it.

Having established a theoretical rationale for the expansion in outlook of education studies, Richards turns his attention to specific topics that could prove rewarding. The chapters on Race and Representation, Children and Television, Young Adult Fiction and Popular Music pick up the pace as well as offering some possibly unintentionally bizarre insights into the world of academia. My favourite featured the work of Hodge and Tripp (1986), who made the case that children should watch more television, not less, in order to increase their awareness of modality or the "reality-status" of a text and "thus learn to recognise and understand the implications of differing degrees of modality". Quite.

Then there was the work of Zipes (2001), who claimed that children's literature does not actually exist ... and of Trites (2000) who claimed that it did exist but was an ideological tool through which adults exercised power and repressed young people.

The highly academic tone and feel of Young People, Popular Culture and Education, one of a series on contemporary issues in education edited by Simon Pratt-Adams at Anglia Ruskin University, begs the question of who the book is aimed at. It has an undeniably student textbook feel about it that is hardly designed to attract the casual or even committed reader. And despite its promising title, little of the text actually casts much light on the influence of contemporary popular culture on the children we teach.

Realistically, that is probably outside its scope. But when it does so, most effectively through the autobiographical writings of one of his less conventional Muslim students at the end of the book, it is highly engaging.

Although I am sure the book will also end up as a student text, it is difficult to escape the feeling that it has been written primarily for other academics. That being so, it will hopefully make an impact and persuade education studies course designers that there are richer sources of influence than the traditional hardcore academic areas of study. And for that, Richards deserves to be thanked by future generations of teacher trainees.


Chris Richards is a research officer and ethnographer at the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, University of London. He was formerly a reader in education at London Metropolitan University and has taught in London, at a variety of levels, since the 1970s.

The verdict: 810.

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