Media Ecology and

Media Education in the United States


Thom Gencarelli, Ph.D.


Associate Professor


Dept. of Broadcasting


Montclair State University


Upper Montclair, New Jersey U.S.A. 07043



Paper 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

Media Ecology and

Media Education in the United States

The 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 United States.

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.

But what then is this New York school?  Let me explain.

In 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.

It 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 culture.

What 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.

Again, 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.

The 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 their concern.

The 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.)

As 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 definition:

Media ecology is the study of human environments.  It is concerned to understand how

technologies and techniques of communication control the form, quantity, speed,

distribution, and direction of information; and how, in turn, such information

configurations or biases affect people=s perceptions, values, and attitudes.  (p. 186)


My 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.

So 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 U.S.?

There 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.

But 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.

 The 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 [1998] 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 of Communication.)

The 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.

The 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.

On 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?

The 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

U.S.--and 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.@

Finally, 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.

What 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.

This brings me to my final analysis: the stumbling blocks that are internal to the media education movement in the U.S.

I 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.

What 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 Hood@ (1998).

Phillips 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Finally, 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 peoples.

With 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.

While this is not a solution, this dialogue, on these terms, is the place to begin.









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