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Post-modernism means something different to everyone who uses the label. Some see it as a total rejection of the liberal ideal of the Enlightenment; for others, Richard Rorty for example, post-modernism simply declares liberalism to be a contingent human phenomenon. By contingent he means that the ideals of liberalism are not written in the stars nor embedded in the depths of human nature but are fragile products of historical forces held in place by cultural institutions which could betray us tomorrow.

In this talk, I will claim that it is ideology that creates the social reality which incarnates the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy, that education is the institution which sustains that ideology and that the mass media now endanger this fragile ideal.

First let me define my use of the term "ideology." I will not be using it in the negative sense of a distorted version of the truth. I will use the term for the set of concepts, values, images, models and vocabulary by which a human community structures its life. I do not mean that ideology is only an interpretation or theory about life. It is not just an intellectual exercise. I agree with post-modernism that our very being as human persons as well as the social reality we live in are constituted by the way we talk and think about ourselves. Ideology is that set of concepts and values which makes us what we are. Governors-General are real, yet that reality is held in being by the idea, values and political institutions of Canadians. Autonomous human persons are also real, and their reality too is sustained, or endangered, by ideology.

By "education" I mean the process we use to pass on these ideals of autonomy to others. Education involves the acquisition of skills such as mathematics and second languages, and information such as geography and biology. I see such intellectual education as incidental means to the main goal of "ideology transfer," that is, the passing on of the ideology which creates the kinds of human beings we should be.


And what kind of human being is that? The fragile Enlightenment ideal of personal autonomy is that a person should be a conscious, free, self-directing individual. By conscious I mean that she should reflect on the beliefs she holds and criticize them by considering the evidence rather than blindly accepting dogmas on the basis of conformity or infantile emotional hangups. By free, I mean especially that her decisions should be her own as opposed to being neurotic leftovers of her parents choices or being manipulative implants by advertising. By self-directed I mean that it is the values that she herself holds that determine her behaviour, not the values of others. This ideal is not egoistic: altruistic values can be authentically adopted by an individual without her thereby ceasing to be herself. Accordingly, I see education as enhancing people's autonomy. Language development enables students to analyze and criticize their beliefs. Skills, such as mathematics, second languages or carpentry empower people to deal with the world around them. Information widens the scope for free decisions. Education is a leading out, a development and enriching of the self, not an imposition of the views and aims of others. It makes people active rather than passive. An educated person is freer, more themself, than one who is less educated. Education should widen the views of the individual so that he can participate in communal decision making, and be an active citizen in his community (and global) politics.


There is an alternative view. It is possible to think of people as tools, as instruments of policies not their own. One could see them as ciphers with little intrinsic values who are destined only to play some role in the functioning of a larger scheme. Slaves, for instance, could be seen a humans whose only value was in the work which they performed for others.

Even slaves need skills and in a complex society may need training, much as a computer needs programming if it is to fulfil it's owner's needs. Freedom, consciousness or autonomy, however, are not the aim of such training, and even when some autonomy is encouraged it is because some tasks are better performed if a slave has some (limited) freedom on the job, not because of the intrinsic value of the person herself. From this point of view, it doesn't matter how manipulated a person is, as long as they thereby fulfil their function.

What function? Well, that depends on the aim of the propaganda. If the aim is to excite people to go to war, then the function the victims are supposed to perform is to go and fight, or at least encourage and support others in their fighting. The most common aim is probably profit in which case the function required of the audience is to consume. In these cases, people are not being treated as ends-in-themselves, as Kant would put it, but as instruments of heteronomous aims, that is, they are being manipulated by propaganda rather than being educated.


My chief contention in this talk is that the mass media have become the main transmitters of ideology and that that ideology is anti-autonomy. Historically, children were encultured by a range of institutions which included folklore, religious rituals, families, schools, and universities. Often people would model themselves on selected individuals in their community whom they admired. Conformity with local peer groups was another important factor. The mass media have largely taken over these functions, even when presenting themselves as "just entertainment." They offer international stars as models, exert pressure on millions to conform to the same, virtual peer groups, and use multi-million dollar hype to sell fashionable life-styles to originally diverse classes and cultures. If people no longer live for heaven, but for the latest consumer goods, if folk and ballroom dancing have been displaced by new styles, if our understanding of sex has done a complete about turn, and if our global human identity is replacing more parochial identifications, then to a very large extent we can blame, or credit, the mass media rather than traditional institutions for the changes. Contemporary gender roles, for instance, are not modeled on folk tales or novels but on sitcoms and rock videos.

In short, the transfer of ideology is already largely in the hands of the mass media rather than schools, universities and other traditional institutions and we can expect the influence of the media to increase in the future while the capacity of these other institutions decrease.

But my point is not only that the mass media have been taking over the propagation of ideology, but also that the ideology being propagated is often, though not always, anti-educational; it is often propaganda in the sense that it actively undermines autonomy rather than promoting it. Let me look at three kinds of media manipulation to illustrate this point.

A large majority of women in our society believe themselves to be overweight. For most of them, this belief is false, yet damaging. One cause of this false belief is the emaciated image presented in magazine advertisements and TV commercials which unconsciously influences the victim's self-image, often by hooking onto leftover infantile anxieties. Education, in this case, would encourage the woman to bring her belief to consciousness, criticize it by comparison with objective norms, and act accordingly. The aim of these ads, however, is to provoke a general, unanalyzed feeling of inadequacy and anxiety for which the advertised product, whatever it is (perhaps a perfume), is offered as a cure. Such manipulation is not incidental; the ads would not work if the victim either examined and rejected the suggestion that she was overweight, or if she pinned the anxiety down to weight and so realized that the product offered was irrelevant to that anxiety. Where an educator would encourage a critical consciousness, the advertiser must actively discourage consciousness if the victim is to play the required role of consumer.

A second media tactic for imposing ideology is by distorting language. Much of the press coverage of the Iraqi war, for instance, demonized the President of that country, labelled him a second Hitler, presented him as insane, referred to the enemy as "he," and so on, in a way which mystified the real issues. This was propaganda, not education. As one observer pointed out, the economic, historical and political position Iraq found itself in was such that almost any government of the country would have acted in the same way. It would have been educational to label the situation as a serious political dispute, for then the audience could have used their political concepts to analyze the complexities of the situation. By describing the event as the ravings of one insane individual, the media reduced the chances of rational discussion about the conditions under which we should kill some hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, when the aim is to provoke war-fever rather than to educate, this tactic can be quite successful.

Another tactic which distorts our view of reality is the presentation of false or unbalanced information. Homicide rates in Canada have been dropping continuously since 1974, recently very rapidly. Nevertheless, many people have the opposite impression. One of the factors in this misunderstanding is the mass media's need to present "a story," that is, something that is attention-grabbing in some way. Hence spectacular murder stories are covered while the absence of crime is not. I think the success of lotteries can be attributed to a similar phenomenon: if the mass media gave equal coverage to everyone who lost a lottery as to those who win, no one would be fooled any longer. When the aim of the mass media however is to make profits rather than educate, then the "newsworthy story" approach is what is needed.

I've mentioned three tactics which distort our view of reality. You could all think of a dozen more. My point is that although the mass media may have the potential to be educational, all too often they resort to propaganda which treats its victims as non-autonomous instruments of heteronomous goals. The overall effect is to encourage people to respond in immature ways: by unconscious identification with a model, nation or team; by responding to some buried infantile emotional need; by accepting loaded or ambiguous language rather than thinking clearly. In this sense, the mass media are not just non-educational; they are positively anti-educational. Advertising, for instance, would not work unless people are encouraged to be passive reactors rather than active, self-directed individuals.

Of course, we should not romanticize schools or universities, but nevertheless propaganda tactics like these are not the norm in these institutions. Of course, there are imperfect teachers who may occasionally give unbalanced information, use distorting language or present images that lower self-esteem, but these are clearly understood to be inappropriate. And certainly there have been schools whose aim was the promotion of communism, nationalism, capitalism, Catholicism, Protestantism or other isms which seldom encouraged autonomy. But our schools, and especially our universities have been our best hope for promoting the ideology on which the very existence of individual critical thought depends.


And what happens next? Our world is changing rapidly and there are a number of possibilities on the horizon which may change the way in which ideology is communicated. In particular, the boundaries between our traditional educational institutions, especially universities, and the mass media may become less distinct for a number of reasons.

First, the drive for "efficiency" is forcing universities to adopt more of the technology of the mass media. Classrooms are becoming multi-media arenas. Distance education courses may soon be shared between different universities and be delivered directly to homes via interactive media which will integrate telephone and cable services with the Internet. Soon students will be able to attend lectures on Plato by watching a professor speaking on a home screen while their favourite rock video plays in a window of the same screen. Universities already rely heavily on commercial corporations for grants for research, buildings and other facilities. How long will it be before teaching will also have to be sponsored, perhaps with a commercial message of appreciation at the beginning? Only the switch of channels will mark the difference between a university course and a shop-from-home facility.

A mass audience means access to, and requires, mass funding. When a teacher makes a one hour presentation to a class for 40 students, preparation time is limited to a few minutes or at most a couple of hours. A one hour presentation on the mass media, however, can involve access to a million dollars worth of time and resources. In a 30 second TV commercial there is money enough for every frame, every word, to be considered, reconsidered and tested on a focus group before releasing it for a mass audience. Given the cost, it is not surprising that any means possible is used to achieve maximum effect, however manipulative that means may be. If you had that much money and time for one of your lectures, think how effective it could become - and how great the temptation would be to be manipulative.

New funding formulas for universities (and maybe later for schools?) will force them to adopt a more competitive stance. Now one of the most obvious reasons why the mass media turn to manipulation is that their aim is profit. Competitiveness of any kind, however, can have a similar effect: while the CBC is not set up to make a profit, it's survival depends on it maintaining a certain share of the market, so it must compete with the other media outlets. If universities become more competitive they too may see their students primarily as instruments to institutional survival. Manipulation will be a severe temptation.

From the other direction, the mass media itself will develop specialized channels, some of which will be "educational" ones. Already there is talk of a history channel which may well compete directly with, and may have better funding than, history departments in universities.

I am speculating that the mass media may come to merge with universities and, later, schools. My fear is that the norms of the mass media rather than the norms of the academy may dominate the union.


So what can be done? My own inclination is to accept the merging of education and the mass media while reaffirming the goal of education. The reality is that the mass media are already highly influential and that further inroads into the traditional areas of schools and universities probably cannot be prevented. The best policy, I think, is to promote educational values and their institutional policies within the mass media. Over centuries, educational institutions have created various means to preserve their educational mandate; These means could now be adopted by the mass media. I'll list three which I consider the most important.

Number one, the mass media should adopt a clear mission statement and a code of ethics. The pretence that the media are purely entertainment must be dropped. We must all acknowledge explicitly the influence that the mass media have and accept the resultant responsibility. We regulate airlines to place safety ahead of profit. We accredit hospitals only if they make health their top priority. The overriding aim of increasing human consciousness and promoting autonomy should be written into the charters of any licensed media organization.

Number two. The media should be professionalised, just as teaching, medicine and the legal profession have been. That is, only individuals who have achieved a certain level of education and competence should be allowed to hold positions of responsibility. Only those with a PhD in history, for instance, should be permitted to produce a programme on the history specialty channel. To be certified as professional, individual journalists, producers, directors and so on should take their equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, namely, personal or corporate profit must never override the obligation to preserve and promote the autonomy of their audience. Just as a surgeon should not operate just to make money, personnel in marketing should not promote a product except in a way that enhances the autonomy of the targeted audience.

Number three, once certified, these professionals should be protected by an academic freedom/tenure system. This is particularly important for news journalists, but something similar needs to be set up for all aspects of the media. Universities have learned that the content of university lectures must be determined by professionals on the basis of their expertise, not by those who fund the institution. Some way of importing this notion into the media needs to be found so that qualified media professionals can have the freedom to promote human autonomy rather than what is only profitable.


Technological change and global competition are creating major changes in way we communicate ideology. Education no longer takes place only, or even primarily, in our traditional educational institutions. In a post-modern world we cannot take individual freedom as a given; it can survive only if we care enough about it to ensure that the most important ideology-transmitting instruments make the promotion of autonomy the top priority. If we cannot find means to transfer to the new educational media the ideals of self-reflection and autonomy and the techniques for promoting these then propaganda may take over and reduce humans to programmed functionaries enslaved to mindless consumption and the heteronomous pursuit of profit.

©David L. Thompson
Philosophy Department
Memorial University
Presentation to the Canadian
History of Education Association
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