Why should we introduce Media Literacy in our school curriculum?

The larger dimensions of Media education should be considered while devising India’s New Education Policy

Media education is not simply a vocational element in school and college curricula, which trains students to become future employees of media companies (though that option might be relevant at a higher level of education). Along with that, the changed context also includes education in navigating the media environment that children are growing up in as befits the citizens of a modern democracy with pluralistic and deeply felt epistemic civilisational roots.
The need for such a policy lies in the recognition that children today are exposed to manufactured media narratives, images, and forces through new technologies in ways that are unprecedented in their depth and scope in history. From early childhood, children are playing with smartphones, watching and listening to television, and by the time they reach young-adult age, are actively using social media as well. While most observers tend to think of this as the normal course of “progress” in the world where consumers have more and more entertainment and information choices to enjoy, media educators remind us that all of this is better understood not as mere consumer empowerment but as a form of colonisation of the public by motivated private, commercial forces.
The Media Education Foundation, a non-profit educational video venture started by Professor Sut Jhally of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has produced several expert lectures and documentaries capturing this process of deep colonisation by media corporations in recent years. Of particular concern is the area of childhood, and the relentless penetration of children’s lives, minds, and bodies by what is essentially a commercial propaganda system. Documentaries like Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood and Sext Up Kids: How Children are Becoming Hypersexualised, draw our critical attention to the rapid ways in which the exploitation of children by media and market forces is becoming normalised.
In India too, much more work is needed to recognise and contest this abdication of childhood to motivated commercial forces, often through the complicity or innocence of parents themselves. We have already become aware of some issues like the exploitation of children in reality shows, the high cost of seeking fame and celebrity over social media, vulnerability to rumours and false messages on WhatsApp, and so on. However, what is needed now is more than just an occasional complaint or protest that generates ephemeral controversy and little lasting change.
What India, its people, civil society groups, and government, must do now is to create a multigenerational social investment in the kind of education that prepares future inhabitants of a media-dominated cultural and intellectual environment for nothing less than survival as free human beings accountable to each other, and to nature, most of all. And this is all the more essential in a liberal, democratic society where we are averse to any kind of excessive top-down media regulation, particularly in terms of programming and content.
If the fear of government censorship precludes us from dictating media content, then the love of our children, and the planet they will inherit from us and our present way of life, should at least motivate us to invest in educating them for survival in the media age and in the pursuit of a more rooted, culturally resonant and ecologically sustainable ideal of progress than what we have found in our education and public culture so far.
Media education needs to be introduced in schools at an early age, combining some of the same goals and spirit embodied in earlier eras in subjects like “moral science” or values, with a gradually increasing element of social scientific rigour and inquiry for each class level. The goals of a media education curriculum would be to, first of all, channelise students’ attention away from blind immersion in media towards a more critical form of engagement with them. Some of my colleagues begin their media studies classes with a week or so of something called “digital detox,” asking students to avoid screen contact for that period, and this has been described as being even harder than Vipassana meditation.
From exercises to heighten distance and critical attention, students can then be introduced to basic media studies concepts and concerns such as: 1. political-economy of media; 2. deregulation and privatisation; 3. gatekeeping and agenda-setting, media bias and representation, and 4. broader social and political issues such as the relationship between media and consumer culture and environmental destruction, race, class and gender issues in media, and most importantly for a democracy like India, 5. the role of media and propaganda in politics.
From my experience, I can say that such a parallel stream of media engagement and education from an early school age will not only help children acquire the needed intellectual resources to disengage from dominant commercial-political agendas in media but also inspire an interest in several other subjects including languages, social sciences and humanities.
Media education is perhaps the closest space we have to a broad interdisciplinary liberal arts education in colleges today and one which comes with the advantage of high interest and familiarity from students already. Combining critical traditions from Western media studies with indigenous concepts of aesthetics, accountability and life might create a promising new chapter in the struggle to decolonise education in India.
I believe that a well-designed education policy will help turn the phones and screens already so pervasive in the new digital India into something other than tools of domination and apathy (and occasional cruelty and violence) that they seem destined to become without active intervention from educators and policymakers. Let us take the most favourite and inseparable objects our society has in its hands today, and turn around our dependence and complicity into something more genuine, hopeful, and restorative to others, human and non-human alike.
(The writer is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco)