Media Studies is shit… say the UK’s top universities
Last week The Guardian (17 August 2009) carried a story about how A Level subjects most valued by universities are disappearing from many secondary schools. Figures obtained by Nick Gibb, the Conservative’s Shadow Schools Minister, show that ‘traditional’ subjects such as Maths, the sciences, Geography and History are being usurped by ‘easier’ subjects like Business Studies, Sociology and (wouldn’t you know it) Media Studies.
Gibb is worried about this because he says the older subjects ‘provide the rigourous academic training that enables children to succeed across a number of fields later in life’. Presumably then the new ones like Media Studies don’t. Gibb is also concerned that the government’s ‘flawed’ league tables incentivise ‘weaker schools’ to steer pupils away from what are apparently more demanding traditional subjects in order to obtain better results and advance themselves up the league tables. ‘
If disadvantaged school kids tend to take the sort of non-traditional subjects that the top universities dismiss then this has implications for the Labour government’s stated commitment to social mobility and widening participation in higher education. But this may be neither here nor there for the chances are that it will be the Tories in office after the next election and they plan to radically overhaul school league tables to reward schools that opt to teach “harder” qualifications. This proposal, the first to emerge from an inquiry into the examination system led by Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, London, suggests awarding fewer points for subjects seen as easier, subjects like A level Media Studies.
But will any of this help those kids from poorer backgrounds? Actually it will probably discriminate against them further because isn’t it conceivable that Media Studies is an attractive subject to young working class kids because it is about the popular culture that they participate in? Isn’t it possible that it appears more relevant to them than traditional, canonised academic subjects such as English Literature? And is it perhaps the association of Media Studies with ‘low’ popular culture, non-elitist interests and ultimately working class kids that explains why it is disregarded by the most prestigious universities?
Critics of Media Studies, like Fazackerley, got their answer on The Media Show last week (19 August 2009) from Sally Feldman, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design (MAD) at the University of Westminster . She accused them of prejudice and living in the past but highlighting the snobbishness of some higher education establishments doesn’t totally exonerate Media Studies.
This is because Media Studies wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants the academic integrity associated with ‘traditional’ disciplines while at the same time it becomes increasingly vocational in its orientation. But as Richard Sennett argues in his book The Craftsman, modern society suffers from a historical inheritance that has drawn a fault line dividing theory and practice, head and hand.
Sennett refers to two provocative categories to illustrate this. Animal laborans are the beasts of burden condemned to drudgery and routine — the factory worker, the call centre telephone operative , etc. Homo faber is the ‘judge of material labour and practice’, not Animal laborans’ colleague but his superior’. ‘Whereas Animal laborans is fixated on the question “How?” Homo fabor asks “Why?”‘
The class character of these categories is obvious and of course Media Studies will claim that it is trying to overcome such class distinctions with its stated aim of combining practice and theory. Who knows, maybe Media Studies is pioneering a new economic order and workplace that is dispensing with class distinctions, in particular those that manifest themselves in the difference between the well paid thinkers and the low paid doers, between the cerebral and the manual worker, between white and blue collar. On the other hand, perhaps it is churning out Animal laborans for these post-industrial times. In which case it’s simply reproducing the class system that pours scorn on it and its students. Time will tell.
The following was add on the 5 Feb 2010: If you’ve just read the above, you should also take a look at this…
And this from the TES (22 January 2010) ‘Poor children being short-changed with soft subjects, slams Harrow head’
And this from The Guardian (22 January 2010) ‘Worthless qualifications’ give false hope to state pupils, says Harrow head’
And this from The Indepedent‘s Education supplement (16 August 2009) ‘Tories tackle the media studies menace’