Breaking the Cycle of Media Illiteracy

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One of the arguments I’ve seen again and again regarding the current debate over violent video games (and all media really) has been that parents are to blame. Parents, who are the gatekeepers of culture and morality for their children, should be paying more attention to what their kids are doing. They should be doling out games, movies, comic books, and albums based on whether or not their child can handle the mature themes within. Then, conversation! It’s what parents do right?

Before I get to shouting, I want to say that in a perfect world I fully agree with this. My parents were harsh arbitrators of content while I was growing up, going so far as to have lengthy discussions following particularly intense episodes of Step by Step or Full House (remember when DJ developed an eating disorder? Crazy shit!). Growing up I only played Doom once, when my father snuck home a set of 10 3 ½’ disks and forswore me to secrecy, threatening the removal of all things electronic should my mother discover. By the time I was 16, I had only seen one episode of Tales from the Crypt, had only just recently had Image comics cleared for consumption, and had lost more than one White Zombie CD to my father’s overzealous ears.

I firmly believe that my ability to rationally approach media has a lot to do with their controlling grasp.

That said, my parents were really fucking good parents. The vast majority of parents are not as good as they were. I got lucky as hell to have two loving, attentive, and patient individuals who didn’t leave my hyperactive ass to die on a cold hill somewhere. They went above and beyond in doing their job. As a public high school teacher, I often see the opposite of this.

It’s a sad truth that most teachers I’ve met simply assume that kids are dealing with unreasonable things when they go home for the day. Drug addicts, absent parents, rampant abuse, having no home at all, these are all things that regularly occur among my relatively middle class predominantly white student population. You’ll try calling home, but more often than not it’s a useless effort. There just isn’t the support there. It sucks, but it’s the truth.

(Before we continue, I do acknowledge that there are lots of really great parents out there. Parents who, like mine, do their jobs and actually raise their own children. Those kids will be fine. It’s the rest of the kids that I’m worried about.)

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So when I hear people blaming the parents for the effect of violent media on the youth of America, I can’t help but find myself unmoved. Of course it’s their fault. I spend every single day of my professional life with a group of kids for whom “going home” means opening themselves up to a whole host of potential emotional assaults. For many of them, my fellow teachers and I are the most consistent thing in their life. My colleagues and I always laugh when we get 95% attendance on the last Friday before a long break, but the truth is that we’re there for them when their parents aren’t. We’re their rock.

When they’re not doing well, it’s often because of these shitty parents and the terrible attitudes they’ve instilled in their children. I’ve seen parents, at parent conferences with five teachers sitting there, tell their children to ignore what we’re saying, that they don’t need school or an education to get anywhere in life. In the culture war against violence, fighting the home battle is pointless. You’re going up against generations of ignorance and abuse that most people involved aren’t even cognizant of.

Instead, we do what we can with the limited time we have them. It’s all we can do to break the cycle that their parents have trapped them in (Often it’s not even the direct fault of the parents, who are just as much victims of crap parenting as their kids are.) The same attitude can be applied to the debate over violent media. If we’re saying that their parents are shit, what about their teachers? We’ve entrusted them with the responsibility of educating kids about the world around them, so why don’t we just ask them to teach kids about why Modern Warfare 3 is totally not okay on a level that goes far beyond the senseless killing of faceless brown people?

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You’re probably already hearing the obvious reasons why expansive media literacy programs aren’t already in place. They’re the same reasons that we haven’t legalized gay marriage, established any semblance of a national identity, or why some schools still can’t teach openly evolution. We’re afraid of saying something concrete about culture. Nevermind that we’ve got the ESRB, the MPAA’s rating system, and the parental advisory board for music; it’s not like we don’t have a relatively well established system in place for determining what is and is not appropriate for casual consumption. Despite this, kids are being exposed to more and more complex topics at younger and younger ages. Just stop by any high school and listen to what they’re talking about, it’ll blow your mind. What’s stopping us from simply asking kids to think about how the media affects them?

Parents. They’ll complain, they’ll launch petitions, they’ll hoot and holler that we’re corrupting their youth. These are the same parents that we’re blaming for not teaching their kids how to deal with violent media in the first place.

Look parents, you’ve obviously shown us you can’t handle the responsibility of raising your own children. They’re going out there and shooting up schools, killing each other in backyard wrestling leagues, and sending pictures of their junk to strangers on the internet. How else can we explain the popularity of the Insane Clown Posse? Whatever you’re doing isn’t working. Why don’t you just let us take over from here? If you’re already doing a good job, if you’re providing your kid with some context for the crazy shit going on in the world, then you’re fine. Your kid will swing an easy A in the media literacy class and wonder what the big deal is.

But if you’re too busy smoking pot, or you’re out partying and leaving Junior with grandma and a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV, then just let us do our job. It’s what we’re paid to do.

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One Response to Breaking the Cycle of Media Illiteracy

  1. This is a great point. We do so much to teach kids history and literature, but completely devalue pop culture. My brother teaches 2nd grade, and he has his kids write about TV shows or games, and to look for behaviors and character traits. We can’t take it away from kids, but it helps if we can make them really think about it.

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