Media Ecology and
in the United States
Montclair, New Jersey U.S.A. 07043
presented at the Media Education as Part of Civic Education Conference,
sponsored by the Institute of Media Ecology, Ivan Franko National University,
Lviv, Ukraine, September 2002
in the United States
purpose of this essay is twofold. The
first purpose is to draw a link between media education/media literacy and
media ecology--specifically the ANew York School@ of media ecology and the
writings of its central figure, Neil Postman.
My thesis is that the theoretical foundations of media ecology, as
articulated by Postman--what media ecology is
and what it is for--constitute the
earliest argument and advocacy for media education as a part of civic
education. The secondary purpose
of the essay is to use this argument as a foundation from which to examine the
very slow progress toward a widespread program of media education in the
idea that a New York school of media ecology school exists was first put to
paper by Lance Strate (1996). Actually,
it was stored in silicon--in his essay AContainers, Computers, and the Media
Ecology of the City@ published in the electronic journal Media
Ecology: A Journal of Intersections.
Part of the argument for the existence of such a school owes to the
scholars and scholarship of the more widely-recognized Toronto School of
Communication. The members of
this school--Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, Edmund Carpenter,
etc.--were not only key intellectual influences on media ecology; they were
the first media ecologists.
In fact, it is McLuhan who is credited with first putting the words
Amedia@ and Aecology@ together in the same sentence (Gencarelli, 2000, p. 91).
Thus, the Toronto school stands as the immediate historical and
theoretical precursor to the New York school of media ecology.
what then is this New York school? Let me
1967, McLuhan accepted a one-year position as a visiting professor at Fordham
University in the Bronx, a few miles north of midtown Manhattan.
This appointment came on the heels of the publication of his books, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding
Media (1964). And it is
during this time in New York, and as the result of the growing impact of his
work, that he became a magnet for a number of New York-based academics,
intellectuals, and media practitioners. These
include: John Culkin, a Jesuit priest who later left Fordham to establish the
Media Studies program at the New School for Social Research (now the New
School University); Tony Schwartz, author of The
Responsive Chord (1973) and a recording engineer and producer who worked
in advertising and produced the infamous ADaisy@ television commercial for
Lyndon Johnson=s 1964 Presidential campaign; Gary Gumpert (1987) of Queens
College of the City University of New York, who first met McLuhan while a
doctoral student at Wayne State University in Detroit where he produced and
directed a television program on his work; Louis Forsdale, a professor of
English Education at Columbia University=s Teacher=s College; and, finally, a
young graduate student of Forsdale=s named Neil Postman.
is Postman who stands at the center--or perhaps better said, at the
beginning--of the New York school of media ecology.
This is not only a matter of the fact that he institutionalized the
term when he established the Media Ecology Ph.D. program at New York
University in 1970. More
importantly, it is Postman who seized upon this otherwise ephemeral pairing of
words that spilled out of McLuhan=s incessant wordplay, recognizing it as the
perfect metaphor to sum up and serve as a springboard for both his own and
others= thinking about our media of human communication.
It is Postman whose name and work is most closely associated with the
term. And it is the roots, the evolution, and the sum total of his
contributions to our understanding of media that can be said to comprise a
general theory of media ecology--among the various other approaches to
studying media and culture and media as
is most important to the present argument, however, is the education base of
this general theory. For the fact
is that Postman=s brand of media ecology--what I am characterizing here as at
least the roots of the New York school of media ecology--is first and foremost
a matter of education. More
specifically, it is both a recognition of and a coherent argument for the need
for a general and widespread media education in our age--for media education
as a part of civic education. I
would also underscore that this call--this impassioned, eloquent, and
continued plea for such an education--predates the movement, the field, the
interdisciplinary discipline of media education/media literacy.
That is to say, Postman=s case is the original case for media education.
It also remains, to date, the most profound and articulate
justification of the need for a media education of citizenry.
let me explain. Postman earned his Ed.D. in English Education from Columbia=s
Teacher=s College in 1958. Thus,
the foundation of his career and work is in the study and teaching of language.
And this is obvious to anyone who has ever read any part of his
writings: He is the ultimate product of a print-literate culture.
He has an abiding love for and commitment to language and literature
and to all the fruits of literacy since Gutenberg=s invention. In sum, his media ecology stems from a certain cultural
conservatism. He is concerned
with the conservation (itself a very ecological word) or preservation of literacy in the face of our electronic onslaught and
the threat not of post-literacy, but of a debased and disrespected literacy.
He fears the consequence of this change in the order of things and what
it may portend for the future of our civilization and our humanity.
roots of this concern can be found in his first book: Television
and the Teaching of English, written under the auspices of the National
Council of Teachers of English and published in 1961.
The book came out just at the time that the invention and the industry
of television were beginning to take hold in the United States. It represents an attempt to address the consequences of this
attractive and powerful new medium for the edifice of the word, the
institution of modern education built upon this edifice, and the positive
progress and evolution of civilization that is the ultimate aim of both.
In fact, out of his total sixteen books (1961, 1976, 1979, 1982, 1985,
1988, 1992, 1996, 1999; Postman & Powers, 1992; Postman & Weingartner
1967, 1969, 1971, 1973a, 1973b; Postman, Weingartner, & Moran, 1969) nine
are expressly about either language or education.
The rest of his works address these two subjects at least as part of
result is that language is the centerpiece of Postman=s theory of media
ecology, as is education, since print literacy is the primary medium of
education and all that an education is for.
Verbal language (especially print) becomes the medium against which all
other forms of media are compared and contrasted.
One might even say language is privileged
in Postman=s media ecology. Other forms of media, such as televisuals or hypertext, are
not only compared and contrasted but measured
against over 40,000 years of the development of human language and the
achievements resulting from this. I
will admit that Postman=s influence on me in this regard explains why I favor
the term media Aeducation@ over media Aliteracy.@
To me, the notions of Avisual literacy@ or Areading film@ are
oxymoronic. Making meaning of moving visuals entails different cognitive
processes, with different results, than doing the mind work required when one
wishes to make sense of and use black marks on a white page.
The purpose and intended effects of the two forms are also entirely
different. (And I say all of this
with apologies to Paul Messaris [1996, 1998] of the Annenberg School of
Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who I respect, and whose work
in visual literacy I greatly admire.)
one final note about Postman=s media ecology before moving on, I would also
point out that his first explanation, in a book-length work, of what media
ecology is--what it means-- appears in a book entitled Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979). This work--a mid-career response to one of his earliest and
most well-known books, Teaching as a
Subversive Activity (1969)--offers the following single sentence
ecology is the study of human environments.
It is concerned to understand how
and techniques of communication control the form, quantity, speed,
and direction of information; and how, in turn, such information
or biases affect people=s perceptions, values, and attitudes.
point in introducing this work into this discussion is twofold.
First, it bears mention that Postman first presented and defined media
ecology in a book about pedagogy, directed to an audience of educators.
Second, in pairing this citation with
Television and the Teaching of English, I hope to make it wholly clear
that the trajectory of his career has been a matter of contextualizing verbal
language within a media perspective. He
has done so because (a) literate language is the primary medium of education (as
well as of modern civilization); (b) this needs to be understood and
maintained in the endeavor to educate our citizenry; and (c) the gravity of
this need to value and preserve literacy can only be fully appreciated through
an understanding of the history and workings, and strengths and weaknesses of all our modes of human communication.
where does this leave us? Or more to the point: What has happened in the United States?
If this is the first case made for a general media education for
citizenry, why have so few people listened or responded?
Why hasn=t anyone in power in the educational system in the U.S.
labored to incorporate Postman=s ideas and ideals into the general educational
mission? Also, if self-described
members of the New York school of media ecology have, to varying degrees,
taken up Postman=s good fight, why does media ecology remain a relatively
obscure perspective? Why does it
remain on the margins of even the discipline of communication and media
studies in the U.S.? Finally and
most importantly: Why has the entire movement to incorporate media education
into civic education stalled in the
are easy answers here with respect to Professor Postman and his work.
For one thing, a surprising number of academics in the U.S. are envious,
and even suspicious of him and his contributions because of the elegance and
accessability of his writing--not to mention his sales as an Aacademic writer.@
There are others who simply disagree with him.
the problem is not Postman. Nor
is the problem media ecology, although as media ecologists we daily confront
it and seek correction. The
problem is systemic. And for the
remainder of this essay, I would like to explain this systemic problem in the
U.S., and situate media ecology within this systemic view.
problem can be analyzed in terms of two sets of factors: one that is external
to the media education movement and one that is internal to it.
I will begin with the external factors.
(And before I do, let me also point out that Robert Kubey 
provides a somewhat different analysis of such external factors in his article
AObstacles to the Development of Media Education in the United States,@
published in a recent media literacy symposium special issue of the Journal
external problems include: (a) competition with the traditional disciplines of
study in U.S. schools; (b) the perception that media education is merely a
special interest; and (c) a commercial imperative that is at cross purposes
with the fostering of an astute and critical body of media users.
battle with traditional disciplines of study comes down to this: On the one
hand, these disciplines leave little or no room within the school day to fit
another subject. Of course, if we
are talking about introducing an area of study that is somehow functional to
the system, room will be found. I am thinking, for example, about the introduction of
computer science--which, in the U.S., has now mutated into a culture-wide
mission to train computer users.
The driving force behind this is the agreement that computer use is a
prerequisite to a productive future workforce.
But compare this to the idea of media education.
How might a citizenry made up of critical media users contribute
something functional or positive to such a system?
In addition, the traditional disciplines have a long and deep history.
And even practitioners in the social sciences, whose disciplines only
date back to the 19th century, consider our field of communication and media
study to be something of an upstart, and a sub-discipline of theirs=.
My point, then, is that these traditional disciplines are entrenched,
powerful--and, I would venture, even threatened.
the other hand, we have the often-suggested solution that we should
incorporate media education into the curricula of these other subject areas.
However, here we are faced with the difficulty of effectively educating
teachers in two fields. It is
hard enough to be good history teacher and scholar.
Is it really possible to fully know and teach the lessons of history
and media at the same time? Or
will one always suffer and be overshadowed by the over?
perception that media education is a nothing more than a special interest
arises primarily out of this same discussion; this same hierarchy and turf
battles. In my introduction to
the 1998 media education special issue of The New Jersey Journal of Communication, for which I served as guest
editor, I wrote that media education is Aone of the most vital and pressing
tasks in education in our age@ (1998, p. 108).
Yet, there are many in the business of education in the
I emphasize that it is a
business--who see such a claim, such an argument as little more than an
attempt by people like us to carve out a niche for ourselves.
Scholarship has evolved into a world of print pollution, information
overload, and the Aend@ of theory and philosophy.
And in this world, many people outside the discipline see media
education merely as the exploitation of a new idea; a new angle in the attempt
to attract the attention of tenure and promotion committees, search committees
that might offer us new jobs (and perhaps better pay!), and the
culture-at-large. Clearly, they
do not Aget it.@
with regard to external impediments to media education in the U.S., is the
fact that there is almost no support system of any kind from any source.
The media/mass media business is a culture industry whose primary
mission is to capture, hold, and sell the attentions of the greatest number of
people (and now specific target audiences and users as well) and to continue
to expand its markets. It is tied
to all other industries, but is especially and directly wedded to the consumer
goods industry--since marketing and advertising are the economic engine that
turns the gears. In the meantime,
the Federal government in the U.S. continues to remove layer upon layer of
regulation from the backs of industry. And
ACulture Inc.@ (to borrow from a title by the late Herbert Schiller) has been
deregulated more than any other business.
As a result, government involvement, at this time, is primarily a
matter of efforts to develop and foster opportunities for unlimited economic
growth on a global scale.
this web of interrelationships means for media education is a stonewall.
None of these parties would benefit from a citizenry that is removed
from, and hyper-aware of, the influence of Culture Inc.
They would be threatened; their interests harmed or undermined.
And since the educational system in the U.S. is for the most part a
system of public education that
operates under the aegis of federal, state, and local governments, there seems
to be little chance that support will come from on high.
Instead, at least for the near term, it will continue to come from the
only place it has come so far: as a groundswell from the grass roots level.
brings me to my final analysis: the stumbling blocks that are internal
to the media education movement in
must begin here by saying that, if there is any solution to the situation at
all, it must come from within this
movement. Because the fact is
that the media education movement has also failed because we
cannot agree on exactly what media education is--what it is supposed to
provide; what it is for. I could
call to mind the distinction that some of us are predisposed to content, some
to media institutions and agencies--to a critical/neo-Marxist perspective--and
some to a focus on media themselves. Some
of us might even find ourselves caught in a tangle that is a combination of
all three. I might also
anticipate questions about my characterization of Postman=s media ecology, and
the problem some might have with his fixation upon literacy, in lieu of a more
balanced, less value-laden and conservative take on the matter.
I would like to do instead is borrow from the ideas and framework of a
colleague and friend of mine, Melissa Phillips, which she presented in an
article entitled AMedia Education in the United States: A Check Under the Gestalt
argues that there are really four distinct approaches to media education in
the U.S. These include a media
Acelebrant@ approach, a protectionist approach, an Aeducated consumer@
approach, and a cultural criticism approach.
Allow me to define and explain each of these perspectives in brief.
celebrant teaches media, but does not really teach about
media--does not really teach us to understand media beyond an understanding of
how to operate the machinery; the hardware and software.
He/she is usually a Agear head@ or Atechnophile,@ who is enamored with
and non-judgmental about the progression of the technological development. He/she seeks to pass this fascination and fixation with media
on to students and the rest of us.
protectionist is concerned with content--specifically questionable, negative,
harmful, and even dangerous content--and the possible impact of such messages
on the social and cultural order. He/she
is especially concerned with the influence of such messages on children--our
most sensitive and precious of media users and our social and cultural future.
His/her media education therefore
seeks to erase such content from the mass media industry=s offerings by
stimulating us to action against the overwhelming amount of such content
available, the negative effects it has, and the sense that the problem only
seems to be getting worse.
Aeducated consumer@ perspective situates citizenry as either producers or
consumers, and emphasizes the fact that attendance to mass media is not only a
matter of consumption when we are presented with advertisements and the
content we choose. Rather, the
very act of our attendance is consumption.
We buy, and buy into, mass media
themselves as products just as we buy the brand-name products and services
of those companies who subsidize the transmission of mass media content
through their purchase of advertising time.
And this perspective reminds us of how we need to be cognizant of
this--which we often are not--and make our (careful) choices accordingly.
the cultural criticism perspective takes two forms.
One is, in effect, media ecology.
This is the awareness of how the omnipresence and influence of our
media landscape not only impacts, but to a great extent determines our culture.
It is our culture.
This follows from Hall (1959), who told us that Aculture is
communication,@ as well as Carey (1988), who entitled his book, Communication
as Culture. From this
perspective, we need to make visible the invisibility of media and understand
how they shape who and what we are. The
other side of this cultural-critical perspective addresses the issues of
multiculturalism and diversity--especially the representation, misrepresentation,
and underrepresentation of minority
all of these approaches in front of us, however, the internal problem becomes
clear. Media educators have
widely varying ideas about what their mission is--about what we need to
provide and why. And because
there is this disagreement, because there is a lack of coherence and
cohesiveness to all that we have to offer as media educationists, in the name
of media education, we find ourselves fighting turf battles among ourselves.
We are often at odds with one another instead of listening to and
learning from each other and working together.
We lack the kind of clear and common goal and focus that we might
present to all of the other, outside constituencies who otherwise might help
and support us in this critical endeavor.
this is not a solution, this dialogue, on these terms, is the place to begin.
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