Why Study the Media? Thoughts from John Culkin

An early media education pioneer makes a case for teaching about media in schools.

By John Culkin

A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter. Each communications medium employs its own code and thus influences the content of the message communicated. Content never exists alone; it is always embedded in some medium. Full understanding, therefore, of any message necessarily involves a study of both the content and the form of the communication, or rather the content-in-form of the communication...

At their best, films communicate valid and significant human experiences which illuminate our common humanity and which we should want to share with our students. At their worst, and they share this fault with all media, they present a dehumanizing view of (sic) man against which the best defense is trained intelligence and aesthetic judgment. The power of the moving image to manipulate, to editorialize and to form values and attitudes makes it imperative in this age of film and television that the audience be equipped with the competence needed to understand the rhetoric of the projected image.

Whatever be the truth in the statement that 'the art of the future has become the art of the present,' the fact of the present is that the moving image is being used in an ever-increasing way to convey information and to shape attitudes and values. Our culture is too close to what is happpening to be able to gauge the extent of influence.

The sheer amount of time spent with film and television is impressive enough to forestall the need for conjuring up fear-filled threats about the effects of the new media. The consumers are there already. The images touch on their political and economic deicisions; they comment incessantly on the very style and meaning of what it means to be human. Intelligent and critical consumers are likely to end up as the best kinds of humans...

So long as the schools neglect this art form, the audience will be at the mercy of those who seek to manipulate them and will remain intellectually impoverished in an art form that is closer to them than many others.

– John Culkin, SJ, in Film Study in the High School: An Analysis and Rationale -- introduction to his doctoral dissertation / Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1964