Media as Education, Education as Media
Reinforcing and Expanding Dehumanization, Exploitation and Injustice
The Mass Media. Television programs, internet websites, feature-length films, newspapers, music tapes and CDs, magazines, billboards, radio programs: essentially, a tool/technology which is used by someone to transmit a message to a large external audience (hence, the term ‘mass’). Media is the combination of form (i.e., the television) and content (i.e., the program). Both of these aspects determine the relationship between the sender and the receiver, which with the mass media today is typically one-way, passive and highly controlled.
In this article, I will explore how the Mass Media is a potent educational force in India, which serves to maintain and expand unjust systems and violent attitudes. Like schooling, the mass media is used to support the coercive power structure of a techno-industrial elite (be they corporate or governmental). Like schooling, the mass media undermines our existence as complete and unique human beings, and tells us instead that we are needy, deficient and homogenous. While ‘entertaining’ us, it complements the education system in urging us to consume and consume to fill our empty selves up. It thus reinforces institutional dependency on professionals and experts, while simultaneously devaluing our creative potential, our hands-on labor, our local relationships, and our own life stories. Like education, the mass media has had, and continues to have, serious effects on our psychologies, our ecologies, and our cosmologies.
Indeed, the parallels between the mass media and the education system are striking. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Mass Media educates; for many people, it is a far greater source of information about the world than textbooks or academics. (How many times have we heard, “Maina T.V. pe dekha. Is liya voh sach hoga” ? (I saw it on T.V .therefore It must be true.) At the same time, the education system can be seen a form of mass media. Specific tools (curriculum, teachers, examinations) are used to convey messages (about progress and development, in particular) to a large audience. The ‘mass’ nature of education is especially apparent now, given the 93rd amendment to make free and compulsory schooling a fundamental right. Moreover, both the education system and the mass media view human beings as ‘masses’, faceless, nameless, context-less units, who need information to save them from their own ignorance. With so many similarities, it is clear that probing into the violence of the mass media can strengthen our understanding of the education system as well.
Ironically, the two oft-cited examples of a ‘functioning, well-run democracy’ – India and the United States – offer us many clues about the anti-democratic nature of the mass media. Part of this is due, of course, to the overall lack of ‘democracy’ in these countries — given corporations’ and international agencies’ near-total control over policymaking decisions, highly skewed legislative representation (where one needs to be a lakhpati to contest elections), and low voter turnout (barely 40%). But mass media (television, film, newspapers, textbooks, etc.) helps to facilitate and reinforce these structural flaws. For built into its functioning is a near-total reliance on elite power interests — for management, financial backing, technological know-how, and therefore, for conceptual control.
In other words, what we ‘know’ about the world is largely a function of what we are told: the often sensationalistic and superficial analysis we get from this monopolized media. Those few large conglomerates who own most of the world’s media succeed in diverting public attention away from key issues, root causes, systemic factors, our roles and responsibilities — indeed, everything that is critical for nurturing a democratic society. All over the world, the middle class is kept busy with soap operas, music videos, game shows, superficial news, and sports. By locking us in the passive role of viewer, the media almost guarantees our quiet acceptance of elite power. We are muted zombies, ever watching, never acting. In this way, the mass media almost guarantees that people will not reflect on why/how their families, communities, societies, are facing life-threatening crises and what they can do about it. Democratic life is thus neglected. This may help to explain why in Udaipur, as in many other cities in India (and elsewhere), the participation of the Indian team in the World Cup will generate far more attention and action than our local drought situation.
This disinterest in our own lives is further exacerbated by the media’s promotion of elites. Experts are propped up time and again to show that we, the viewer-consumers, are incapable of understanding the world, our localities, even our families, without their professional guidance. In the face of their authority, we become silent and obedient. Indeed, the process of ‘information-dissemination’ by experts leaves us feeling isolated and weak, incapable of doing anything to stop/change the massive machines of government and business. We say to ourselves, “What can I do? I’m only one person. It’s for the scientists to fix, for the government to decide… I have no power in this system.” Perhaps nowhere was this more visible than last year’s Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where worse than the perpetrators of the atrocities were those who stood alongside and watched.
To establish the rule of the expert elites, media is used to deliberately and conveniently blur the line between ‘fact’ and ‘interpretation’. Subjective/biased analyses are passed off as the objective Truth — not to be doubted in any way. If one dares to raise a question, they are quickly labeled either anti-national or a terrorist. In India, the ‘closing of the ranks’ occurs most often around the issue of Kashmir. If one disagrees with the Government of India’s plans and procedures, they must be unpatriotic and pro-Pakistan. This false sense of ‘objective’ analysis is one of the greatest threats to democratic thinking and living. It allows the mass media to complement the indoctrination we received in schooling, to constantly submit to the experts’ version of the Truth.
In addition, the near-total reliance on advanced technologies (satellites, computers, cameras) ensures that the majority of the world’s people will never be able to participate in the creation or control of mass media. Both the access to the technology itself and/or the knowledge needed to operate the technology is limited to a select few throughout the world. This alienation from (and yet simultaneous dependency on) technology aggravates the already undemocratic nature of the mass media.
In form and content, the mass media also silences our individual and collective expressions. It does this first and foremost by devaluing our own lived experiences. Who we are, how we live, how we express ourselves, is nothing in comparison to the images we are shown and the commentaries we are given about ‘reality’. Those are assumed to be more important and more honest than our own lives. The media’s obsession with celebrities, from Shah Rukh Khan to Sachin Tandulker, serves to remind us how boring our own lives are (which is why we should concentrate on theirs). Yet, it is only through engagement with our own experiences that we come to understand our concerns, fears, dreams, and hopes. These understandings are then expressed in various forms, such as dance, music, painting, sculpture, poetry, stories, farming, weaving, friendships, worship, etc.
Interestingly, we can look at these expressions as media also, in another sense of the term — as meaning-making, idea-sharing, feeling-communicating. This kind of media differs from television, the internet, newspapers and other mass media, in several ways: First, in who gets to create/conceptualize them. Expressions can be generated by everyone, because they are rooted in the self, culture and nature. Their creation therefore cannot be owned by any one group or centralized in one space or time. No one, for example, has a monopoly on making music or creating a work of art. However, the mass media, as described above, is produced by a small group of elites, who maintains control over the ideas/values/perspectives offered.
Second, expressions differ from the mass media in how they are made, used and viewed. Because expressions come from the heart, within a local context, they are typically low- or no-cost (in terms of the modern cash economy) and utilize convivial technologies (natural colors, simple tools, etc.). Those who live in that locality interact with these kinds of expressions, which means that they remain close to most peoples’ daily lives, their families, their feelings and their work. Good examples of this ‘small media’ are generated every day (in relation to food and crafts), as well as during special occasions like Rakshabandhan, Holi, Sakranti, weddings or other celebrations.
In contrast, the awesome and expensive technological grandeur of the mass media ensures that only a few can be involved in making it. And although it is disseminated to many (like compulsory schooling), in doing so, it promotes the notion that authority and ‘right answers’ are far more important than the particularity of a person’s life, story, feeling, wisdom, etc. The scale and size of the mass media thus effectively kills self-esteem, creativity, responsibility, diversity, which are the building blocks of local expressions. We have seen this happen over and over again, with children in Udaipur. They consistently doubt their own abilities to create something new — be it a dance, some music or a picture — and prefer instead to copy what they have seen in books or in films. “Humko apne aap banana nahi aatha. Aap karo. Hum aapko dekh ke kar lenge.” (We don’t know how to make our own [picture/dance]. You do it and we will copy you.) It takes several days in an unlearning workshop to challenge this mindset. But it leaves me wondering what the impact of another generation of self-doubting imitators will be on India – especially given the serious damage caused by the imitators of the first and second post-Independence generations.
The Mass Media Is Anti-Human
If we understand the undemocratic and anti-expressive nature of the mass media, then we begin to see what a great affront to our own humanity it is. In essence, the mass media projects (in brilliant color) the culture of competition, profit and material growth above all else, which is crushing the world today. It aligns with the dominant political economy to try and convince us that this kind of Development is the ONLY possibility for the present and the future. “This path is inevitable,” it proclaims — and so we should all play the game to win. Winning, on its terms, means greater consumption of market services and products, and greater submission to the state: “Don’t raise questions about India’s nuclear policy, or the death of small farmers and artisan communities, or the lack of water in your area, or your family’s breakdown, or your own anger and depression. Instead, have a Pepsi-Cola, buy a lottery ticket, and keep trying to win (i.e., fit into this system).”
This dehumanizing attitude is largely due to advertising — by far, the dominant feature and function of the mass media. Indeed, without advertising, the mass media could not exist. Advertising seeks to remind us how sad and needy we are, how incomplete and imperfect. And after showing us our problems, it also gives us the solution: we can attain happiness and wholeness, by purchasing the right Toyota motorcycle, or Lakme cosmetic, or Cadbury candy.
Advertising, of course, is made more potent by the format of mass media. Like schooling, the mass media is physically-isolating, psychically-numbing, and disconnected from real life interactions and context. We are alone when we watch television or read the newspaper. The format thus guarantees that messages are transmitted one-way, from external authorities to passive/silent viewers. All of this combined leaves us ripe to follow the advertisers’ messages.
In this way, the mass media (like education) helps to produce self-serving, de-humanized units, cut off from one another and dependent on massive institutions for their thoughts, values and actions. This makes it a powerful tool for social control and indoctrination, and enables it to reinforce the unjust status quo (the 80-20 divide in society, in which 80% of wealth/resources are controlled by 20% of people).
Challenging the Mass Media (or Education)
Perhaps the initial response to the above analysis (at least, from the Right) will be to privatize the media, remove it from the State’s hands and give it to private interest groups, who will make it more free and democratic. The problem is that this solution does not challenge the underlying logic of the mass media, which is as follows: the media has to be Big and run by experts, to be meaningful or important. To be Big, it requires large amounts of money and an impressive management to run it. Whoever has this money, or is selected for this management, will therefore own and operate the media. Which today means either the State or Market will be in control. (By the way, this line is not as distinct as it is made out to be — given the historical and contemporary partnership between industries and governments, from the East India Company to today’s multinationals.)
The problem is, accountability from both the State and the Market is improbable or even impossible. Why are we trapping ourselves in a lose-lose situation? Why don’t we think beyond these two ‘options’, by taking them out of the equation all together? If we stop making media scarce — by insisting it be Big, expert-run, and therefore, expensive and centralized — then we open the door to many other possibilities. We will not need to choose between the State or Corporations; we will be creating, uncovering and rediscovering a diversity of media.
Incidentally, we need to do the same thing for learning. It is time to question the perverse logic that learning is scarce and can only happen in schools (which therefore will be owned and managed by either the State or by Corporations). If we see that learning (like media) is in each of our hands, we will not only challenge current levels of indoctrination and manipulation, but we can also free our creative and expressive potentials. Our conversations will change from the droning despair of ‘Where can we get money to run our uniform and compulsory education for all?’ to the bubbling energy of ‘How can we engage with a diversity of learning spaces, to live closer to our convictions of hope, justice, balance and meaning?’
A second response of critics (from the Left, I expect) may be that what is needed is a more democratic and progressive system of media which brings in the voices of all people and addresses the key issues of our times. This can either come about by making the existing model ‘freer’ or by setting up a new alternative mass media (like an alternative education system). Yet, if that alternative system still needs to be Big, still needs experts, still requires a lot of money and technology, and still intends to ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ the masses, then it will essentially replicate the undemocratic, anti-expressive and dehumanizing effects of the current mass media. That is, so long as the format and underlying assumptions remain, then no matter what the content, the media will continue to be a tool for elite power interests. (The Soviet Union and China offer good examples of this.) Therefore, I do not think it makes sense to waste a lot of time and energy trying to reform a system, which embodies indoctrination, manipulation, exploitation and control. We would be much better off renouncing it and co-creating a diversity of media to better meet our individual and shared interests, needs, and dreams.
For this to happen, media (like learning) ought to be considered in its expanded sense, as meaning-making, idea-sharing, feeling-communicating… This enables it to be small scale, diverse, and creative. Which means each individual, in each locality, can generate many, many different forms of such media, to be shared with other individuals and other localities. This is already happening all over the country, particularly in places where mass media and schooling are limited in scope. For example, in Udaipur, those termed ‘illiterate’ and ‘backward’ have been for generations creating a multitude of stories, poems, dohas (poetic couplets) and kevtas (proverbs) in Mewari (the local language). Women especially have been actively making music, dances, drawings, paintings, as well as arranging different celebrations, festivals and prayers. Whole families express themselves with media every day, through the work they do together, be it farming or making crafts or taking care of each other.
But even while all of this is happening, the increasing presence of the mass media in our lives asks us to open up more spaces and opportunities for each of us to think critically about the media, as well as generate our own creative expressions. For example, here at Shikshantar, we are working on a number of processes with children, youth and parents in Udaipur: exploring visual images and art; dissecting advertisements; interpreting cartoons; recording our individual and family media habits; making our own puppets and musical instruments out of waste materials; rediscovering dance as storytelling; writing our stories and poems in Mewari (local language); painting provocative wall murals; making unique clay sculptures; organic farming at home... All of these activities are low- or no-cost, and are occurring in families’ homes or neighborhoods. In this way, they enable parents and children to come together and learn together (a rare occurrence in urban areas in India today) about themselves, each other and their world.
While just the beginning, I see these as examples of the self-organizing, locally-generated, dialectical processes that we need to free ourselves from the daily onslaught of indoctrination that occurs via mass media and schooling. They not only prompt critical dialogues about the existing media in our lives, but they nurture our abilities to creatively express ourselves and understand the world around us. Moreover, they free us from the illusions of needing a lot of money, technology, or technical knowledge to create media in our lives and work. We reconnect with and revalue not only our own experiences and feelings, but also the magical power and infinite potential of our own hands (and backs and feet). Such expressions of self-realization and self-organization are perhaps the greatest challenges to the dominant political economy that we can make.
Challenging Media as Education (and Education as Media) means renouncing our roles as passive consumers of sound-bytes of information, fed to us by an external source, isolated from our families and the natural world. It means breaking free of the limits placed upon our actions and interactions, and instead thinking more about the opportunities for unlearning, co-learning, and self-learning currently available to us. What already exists in our communities and contexts today? What kinds of new spaces and relationships can we generate?
Today, many people are questioning the media and education, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly — How can more of this happen? Perhaps by each of us first asking ourselves,
· How can I live and interact in ways that challenge exploitation and indoctrination?
· How can I break the monopoly that Education/Media has?
· How can I encourage people to reclaim learning as inherent to themselves, not as something given to them by experts?
· How can I engage in and promote local, diverse self-expressions?
· How can I ask more questions and encourage others around me to ask questions?
About the Writer
Shilpa Jain <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a learning activist with Shikshantar <www.swaraj.org/ shikshantar> in Udaipur, Rajasthan. She is critically questioning many aspects of education and development, and has conducted research on globalization, democratic living, decentralization, creativity, local languages... Shilpa loves learning with children and youth, and is currently engaged in generating life expressions and organic farming in Udaipur.
 My colleague, Selena George, and I have explored the deep problems of the 93rd amendment in another work, “Exposing the Illusion of the Campaign for Fundamental Right to Education”, available from Shikshantar or on-line at www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/resistance.html.