The sub-headline on Education World’s lesson plan page for teaching web literacy shouts at us with bold and italics. The subtext is clear: the Internet is a place you cannot trust. Education World goes on to list the possible authors of web pages, including “any ignoramus -- or satirist or bigot or fool with an ax to grind” and presents the scary question: “how do kids distinguish between The WhiteHouse.org (a site you definitely don't want to show your students) and The WhiteHouse.gov?” [For those not in the know, WhiteHouse.org is a political satire site, mostly mocking George W. Bush and many policies from his tenure as president, but has also had adult humor and adult content links from time to time; it includes the hilarious and inappropriate “White House for Kids” page of links on fun tobacco safety, how to deal with stupid policemen, and abstinence (how to keep it in your pants). This site is not to be confused with WhiteHouse.com, which was a porn site for years, before it turned into a list of dating site links and now seems to be mostly defunct.]
This positioning of the Internet as a place full of ax-grinding predators lying in wait to trap children into smoking cigarettes and running from the police is not limited only to poorly constructed arguments complete with bandwagoning and a lack of concrete evidence by sites such as Education World, who claims “The words you are reading now have been read -- and reread -- by several experienced editors and educators. They are words you can trust -- posted at a site you can trust”; this us-versus-the-monster language is a consistent feature of the media literacy discussion.
The European Association for Viewers Interests (EAVI) video series (2) on media literacy for children (written by Paolo Celot and Susie Jones) features Jack, a small boy in a rowboat navigating an ocean. On his journey through the waters of the Internet, Jack sees a submarine spying on him, sharks circling his rowboat, an armada of pirates meant to represent advertising, and a single octopus’ tentacle that suddenly rears up out of the water, towering over Jack, meant to represent false advertising and the hidden danger trying to pull Jack under or capsize his rowboat at any time. Lurking under the surface of the water, there is a submarine with a bomb, more sharks, and some sort of big-toothed piranha-like fish, representing google searches. The narrator of the video points out that Jack must be “armed with critical thought,” a metaphor that escalates the dangers lying in wait to attack Jack to that of a war, in which he needs weapons. In episode 2 of the video series, Jack lands on an island, and promptly “gives away his power” and “allows the media to distract him”; the viewer watches a scary cartoon of Jack in his boat getting dragged all over the place in the ocean by a submerged arm. Lux, the aptly named guide for Jack, appears and tells Jack he must “nurture the seed of awareness in [his] belly” so that it can grow into an awareness tree. Jack then climbs his tree of awareness and texts his friends, sadly circling the base of the tree down in the darkness of the forest, so that they can ask themselves “What am I doing? Where am I going?” and find their own awareness tree to climb and giant bird to ride through the sunny air of the Internet.
The metaphorical world of the media that Andrea Quijada constructs (3) is no more mature and no less frightening than the world of ignoramuses, satirists, bigots, and fools with axes to grind, or the world full of circling sharks, tentacles, submarines, and pirates, all wanting to ambush or capsize Jack in his rowboat. Quijada’s world presents an Internet full of subtext and untold stories; her media literacy students are on a quest to deconstruct the media; they need magical “accessories” in their toolbelts. She likens the media-literate student to Wonder Woman with a “golden lasso”; her students, when finished with the media literacy unit she teaches, have “gained a superpower.” Her prevalent example of media manipulation and the deconstruction of the message is an ad by a credit card company that her winning student deconstructed and reconstructed, to show the “corporate manipulation and slavery” that the subtext of the ad was selling.
These scary metaphors are doing more harm than good. Media literacy skills are critical, and teaching students (and ourselves) to be critical thinkers is incredibly important...but not because the sharks are grinding their axes and we can only survive by using our golden lasso to avoid smoking the abstinence cigarettes of corporate manipulation and slavery. We should teach students to use critical thinking because that’s what educated people do. If we approach the Internet tentatively out of fear, waiting to see what lurks around the corner to pounce, we risk missing the chance to be on a level playing field, participating as savvy consumers, creative inventors, and eager explorers.
If there is a war to be fought, it should be with our own fear; our students should be armed against ignorance, assumptions, and malevolence in all aspects of their world...and mind.
(1) Education World. “*I Read It on the Internet: Teaching About Web Literacy,” 13 Jan. 2015. Online. Internet. 22 Mar. 2015. . Available: http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson230.shtml.
(2) Media Literacy Concepts and Metaphors: Critical Thinking, 2013. Online. Internet. 19 Apr. 2015. . Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYKnfuFZ1pA&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
(3) Creating critical thinkers through media literacy: Andrea Quijada at TEDxABQED, 2013. Online. Internet. 19 Apr. 2015. . Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHAApvHZ6XE&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
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