We are not neutral

Earlier this week, I received a link (from Peter Tittenberger) to a CBC series titled Spin, the spinners and the spun. The audio series (about 6 hours in total) chronicles the rise of public relations in media. What we now see as commonplace – press releases, sound bites – was initially distrusted by media (which at that point was basically the newspaper industry). The press kept its distance from public relations of business, politics, and others with a particular message. The press was, essentially, a neutral player in public discourse, playing a role of informing the public of notable events.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Ivy Lee pioneered the perception of press releases as news. Edward Bernays was not far behind Lee, though he quickly moved beyond seeing public relations as a means to provide the press with news, and instead sought to manipulate and influence others through the medium. Bernays notion of engineering consent was an elaborate foray into directing the actions of others (crowd psychology) to his intended aims. Consider his “torches of freedom” campaign on behalf of American Tobacco to encourage women to smoke. The deliberate shaping of public opinion was central in Bernays’ interactions with the press. Bernays’ and Lee’s principles formed the basis for how corporations and politicians view media – as a megaphone for presenting their message.
The press and news industry began a somewhat tortured relationship with politicians, corporations, and special interest groups. For someone with a message, “the news” was a vehicle for entering the minds of citizens. Carefully crafted press releases and media “talking points” for politicians have infiltrated the press to the point where authentic voices are obscured with hidden marketing messages.
Why this discussion on this blog? I’ve followed criticism leveled at blogs, wikis, “wisdom of the crowds”, and other views of “the masses”. Generally, the tone is one that the activities of the many fails to meet the quality of the experts or the few. This may well be the case in some situations, but certainly not all. Even more important, especially when applied to news media like radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers, is the lack of neutrality. While an expert reporter may provide important investigative coverage, she is not the norm. Have a look at the Center for Media and Democracy’s report on Still not the News, covering how media outlets use press releases provided by corporations/government. These releases are sometimes reproduced in their entirety without any acknowledgment that they are actually advertisements. Pharmaceutical companies do this frequently…and in one instance, different news programs simply narrated (word for word) over the press release provided by the company. The fault here is not with the companies. It’s with the news agencies that fail to acknowledge the lack of neutrality of the sources and with the public that esteems them too highly.
If amateurs lack the ability of experts, then it’s important to acknowledge that the experts in different media are not neutral. They are often mouth pieces for the PR spin of others. While the authenticity of citizen journalism is being questioned, we should be questioning the lack of disclosure by traditional channels. As this wiki article states: “Citizen Journalism is slowly being looked upon as a form of rightful democratic ways of giving honest news, articles, etc, directly by citizens of the world from anywhere.”
Our distraction with addressing the concerns of critics has been misplaced. For example, wikipedia is challenged as being inaccurate (though an “expert-led investigation” by Nature suggests inaccuracies between Wikipedia and Britannica are not that significant). Wikipedia, however, says more about information access than it does about authority. Similarly, citizen journalism says more about openness and transparency than it does about professionalism. There is room enough for both expert and amateur, Wikipedia and Britannica, bloggers and reporters.
Where does this leave us in relation to education? We are not as far down the road of change in education as news, PR, and other media. But we are seeing some distinctions emerging. The read/write web threatens a significant change in how we interact with information and each other. Mobile devices allow students to ignore the restrictions of network administrators. As educators, we still have a stronghold on accreditation. But what happens if accreditation is no longer the requirement of learners? What happens if the capacity to perform a task (such as programming with Ruby on Rails) is more about reputation within a field than a piece of paper provided by an institution. (I should lament, however, that I have issues with the utilitarian focus of learning – i.e. learning only for a career or a job. Learning has deeper elements to it that simply work-based – it prepares us for citizenship, for life…and, I think, provides a sense of enjoyment not unlike eating exquisite food).
Much like Britannica fails to see the draw of information access, or newspapers fail to see the draw of authentic voices, I’m concerned that educators are not seeing the draw of learning and personal control. When an industry provides its audience/customer with a service or product no longer desired, it risks obsolescence. Obviously educational institutions are far from collapsing, though some, like Graham Atwell, question whether it is the beginning of the end of industrial schooling (overlooked in the discussion is the partnership with Microsoft – close public schools open corporate schools). But all of our philosophies and high ideals bear little weight when the industry we serve has shifted.
I’ve been thinking about the role of universities in society – I don’t think we should treat the so-called web 2.0 as something to which we must automatically move simply because students are adopting these tools. The tools need to make sense in the context of education. Education, after all, does not play only a reactionary role in society, but also a role of transformation. Yet in our emphasis on the “how” of education, we have lost sight (as Postman states) on the “why” of education. I think many students have a different version of “why” than most educators. This is the heart of our challenge (opportunity). It’s not about finding better tools and approaches to teaching. It’s about why we do it at all. Ask the news industry what happens when your audience has a different “why” than you do…

4 Responses to “We are not neutral”

  1. Karyn Romeis says:

    You raise interesting points, here, George, some of which have been swirling around in my mind in various stages of coherence.
    In the corporate context, all learning tends to be what you call utilitarian. Every course, every learning objective, every penny of the training budget must be motivated for, must serve the wider corporate purpose. There is no way that a corporation is wittingly going to spend money on learning that does not move it forward. While it easy for non-profit organisations to be scathing of this approach, it is what it is and the corporate world is a cut-throat one.
    So it is outside of this work-based, work-focused learning that there is scope for the “exquisite food” you mention. I too, have concerns for the “why” of education. I have raised the question several times in discussion with my classmates on my MA course (most of whom are teachers) and it is alarming how few people have ever stopped to ask themselves that question: the “what is it FOR?” that came out of the recent FOE2007.
    In the UK, there has been a trend over the past few years to do away with courses at adult ed centres that don’t lead to any qualification or accreditation. So all those folks who have slaved all their lives and now, in retirement, finally have the leisure to indulge their lifelong yen to learn pottery/lifedrawing/salsa are finding that the funding for these course has been withdrawn because they don’t serve a purpose. So sad. I remember my gran going along to pottery lessons – she was atrocious at it (I still have some examples as evidence), but she loved the tactile experience of working with clay – surely that must worth something? Quo vadis the ballroom dancing for grey-haired beginners, swimming lessons for adults-who-never-got-around-to-it, classical civilisations just-for-the-hell-of-it?
    I like your comparison with food. Some people are utilitarian eaters who eat to live. Not me. For me, food is an experience in and of itself. How do we reach the point where learning is viewed in the same light by people other than us geeks?

  2. > The tools need to make sense in the context of education.
    or do you want to say, “The tools need to make sense in the context of learning.” …?
    Education, properly so-called, has a socialization function, perhaps even a propaganda function. This is the version of ‘why’ that students don’t have. Students want to learn; but teachers have something very specific they want to teach. For their own purposes, not the students’.
    Is *this* the context in which the tools must be make to make sense?
    These tools empower students. But I am always asked, how can they be used to disempower them.
    People wonder why, at this point, I become unco-operative.

  3. Hi Stephen – good clarification – yes, I intended it to refer to the context of learning. Your distinction of education was exactly what I addressing – i.e. the value and role of student control in a system that is biased toward views of expertise.
    Higher education (my focus) needs an environment which permits broad use of tools at the choice of students. The systemic implementation of tools (specifically for teaching) is different than the use of tools students use for learning. Institutions need, at this level, to be aware of the why and what of the tools they choose to institutionalize. To begin using blogs in teaching requires an understanding of the contexts in which they work best. To use blogs for learning, well, that’s something that learners decide for themselves.

  4. Andrew Pass says:

    George, I think the points you make here are excellent. There are literally hundreds of web 2.0 widgets out there. While many have learning purposes, others appear not to. I don’t think it’s for us as teachers, however, to decide what widgets can assist learning in what ways. Rather it’s for us to expose digital natives to these tools and then encourage them to form their own opinions. I bet that students will develop effective ways of using many widgets of which we had never thought.