John Culkin, SJ: The Man Who Invented Media Literacy: 1928-1993

Visionary teacher and friend of Marshall McLuhan, he wrote curriculum on film study for his doctorate from Harvard

John Culkin (1928-1993) was one of the first educators in the U.S. to initiate explicit media education curriculum in schools. Indeed his professional life was focused on a steadfast conviction that America needs to create a media-literate population. He further believed this to be the responsibility of the school.

In 1964 he wrote, "The attainment of (media) literacy involves more that mere warnings about the effects of the mass media and more even than constant exposure to the better offerings of these media. This is an issue demanding more than good will alone; it requires understanding. And training in understanding is the task of the school!"

Culkin's ardent study of the media began while at a Jesuit seminary at Woodstock College, Maryland (1958-1962). There, in his spare time, he "stumbled upon" Marshall McLuhan, then an English professor at the University of Toronto, in "obscure journals" and made a mental note that the then unknown author was someone he would like to meet one day. At one point, Culkin wrote McLuhan, and the two developed a lively correspondence. Culkin also traveled in France and Italy during the summers where he was impressed by the educators he met who were developing critical audiences for film. He brought Canadian film educators to the seminary to acquaint his colleagues with their techniques for developing film literacy.

After ordination, Father Culkin went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for, as he put it, "a little polish." There he earned the Doctor of Education degree in curriculum development, writing a film study curriculum as a dissertation (1964) and gaining prominence as a film scholar. One day McLuhan phoned him there to say he was just down the road at Brandeis University to give a lecture...could they meet later at the local pub?

It was a fortuitous meeting. Culkin became a renowned and excellent interpreter of McLuhan's thoughts and work, writing important early articles about the media shift in The Saturday Review. McLuhan in turn, appointed Culkin a fellow at the University of Toronto's Centre for Culture and Technology and proudly announced in correspondence with a colleague "...I obtained the services of John Culkin, the film Jesuit, who is known throughout the world among film-makers and teachers."

Culkin became a renowned and excellent interpreter of McLuhan's thoughts and work.

In 1964, Culkin accepted a position at Fordham University in New York City, and then urged the dean to hire McLuhan from Toronto. McLuhan moved to Fordham and his newly-published book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, formed the basis for all of their work. At Fordham, Father Culkin created methods for learning and teaching how to use television, film and photography as "objects of study" and combine them with more traditional subjects in the humanities, English literature, and the arts.

In 1969, the tall, blond priest left both the priesthood and Fordham and founded the Center for Understanding Media, Inc. based in Greenwich Village. The mission of the Center was to teach teachers how to understand all forms of media including print, theater, and the newer electronic forms such as film and television. Understanding media was the Center's sole objective and, as such, it was the first organization in the United States with that exclusive purpose.

The work of the Center for Understanding Media was carried out through various projects including:

  • The Film and Video Artists-in-Schools Program (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts);
  • The American Short Story on Film (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting)
  • The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers
  • The Media Educators Association
  • And various media education programs in schools.

Above all, Culkin wanted to teach teachers to think in new ways. He believed that if teachers understood the function of media in culture, they could use that awareness to help young people become better learners. By the late 1960s there was more information outside the classroom than in it, due to the pervasiveness of film and TV. Much of the information was really misinformation, so that "separating the signal from the noise" became a necessary task. It was important for educators to grapple with this disparity between information levels outside and inside the school. That meant dealing with the full spectrum of materials to which pupils were exposed outside and to help them deal with it critically and reflectively, rather than with the passivity that had come to be associated with habitual TV viewing.

Above all, Culkin wanted to teach teachers to think in new ways.

John Culkin frequently quoted Edmund Carpenter, the anthropologist, who had influenced Culkin's own philosophy of media. Carpenter emphasized that the new media are actually languages:

"English is a mass medium. All languages are mass media. The new mass media — film, radio, TV — are new languages, their grammar as yet unknown. Each codifies reality differently, each conceals a unique metaphysics. Linguists tell us that it's possible to say anything in any language if you use enough words or images, but there's rarely enough time; the natural course is for a culture to exploit its media biases."

In his speeches and writings, Culkin talked about using all of the senses. He said: "The quality of our sensorium influences the quality of our knowledge. This may seem obvious enough until we reflect on the fact that most schools do very little to consciously train the senses. The environment, on the other hand, is constantly shaping the senses at random."

Like McLuhan, Culkin saw that few people could perceive with a "present eye" and that they misapprehended it by codifying it in terms of the past: "The unnoticed fact of our present is the electronic environment created by the new communications media. It is as pervasive as the air we breathe (and some would add that it is just as polluted) yet its full importance eludes the judgments of common sense or content-oriented perception. The environments set up by different media are not just containers for people; they are processes which shape people. Such influence is deterministic only if it is ignored. There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening."

"The new mass media - film, radio, TV - are new languages,
their grammar as yet unknown."

In early 1970, the Ford Foundation granted the Center for Understanding Media $123,043 for the purpose of carrying out training in the use of new media in the Larchmont-Mamaroneck, NY public schools. The center's work with a nucleus of 20 teachers and 10 students began in the spring of 1971 and continued through the summer. The summer program aimed, first, to help participants use film and television to look at themselves in their teaching environments and, second, to develop one special area of competency, such as videotaping or animation. According to Kit Laybourne, one of the instructors, the more important outcome was that the participants became more comfortable with "new tools and newer perceptions."

At its conclusion, the project revealed that the study of media, accompanied by hands-on involvement, leads to creativity, critical thinking, heightened motivation toward schoolwork and a habit of experimentation and play that can lead to all sorts of discoveries.

Culkin later developed the Media Studies Master's Degree Program at the New School for Social Research in New York in the 1970s. He died in 1994 after 10 years of illness

Author Bio: 

As a parent, teacher and resident of Larchmont, NY, Kate Moody witnessed and participated in the early experiments with television production in Larchmont schools in the 1960's. She tells the full story of those days, the challenges involved and what became of the young people who participated in The Children of Telstar: Early Experiments in School Television Production (#1018) She holds an EdD from Teachers College / Columbia University in New York City.