Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Education in the Age of Secondary Orality

The first humans lived under conditions of primary orality. Individual memory was the only way to transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next. Learning was based on oral modes with parables, puns, poesy and music central tools of the "educational" system. For example, in oral cultures a person’s word was his bond. Without written records to provide proof, people had to depend on the spoken word to bind agreements.

During the manuscript and print eras, written documents replaced memory as the primary means of transmitting information over time and space. Copying texts became a means of acquiring knowledge, with remnants of memorization persisting. We learned our ABC's by song and memorized math tables and poetry while at the same time our teachers required written examinations of memorized material.

In the early years of electronic media, only a few had access to external memory devices to record and preserve our culture. An electronic broadcast would be sent to many, but then disappear into the "aether." Educators used video for distance learning and to perpetuate the lecture model of education of the manuscript age. Students experienced increasing alienation in the classroom as the culture's true pedagogy was conducted via mass media-based advertising organizations.

With video cell phones, cheap editing technology, internet access and so on, what once was available to few is now available to many. What was private has now become public. The World Wide Web has added a readily accessible "Memory Well" to enable total cultural recall and dissemination. Items dropped down the Memory Well no longer vanish forever. We now can retrieve video, audio, text and photos at will – without resorting to memorization or physical texts.

This ability easily to retrieve many if not all of our artifacts will bring about a shift in our culture's notion of what is important to know and how to educate our young. It has already generated a crisis in the copyright arena as students unwittingly cut and paste together their assignments from material available online.

Our political leaders and media personalities must now cope with the new power the Memory Well has given to data retrieval. This has profound implications for politics, education, social policy and the mass media themselves, including broadcast news organizations and the traditional press.

Our educators must anticipate the characteristics of this cultural shift and design an education system that prepares our students to live in the era of "secondary" orality. We must learn how to mentor the Millennial Generation.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Something Wiki This Way Comes.

If you spend any time browsing the YouTube, you've probably seen the Media Ecological videos produced by Kansas State University Professor of Cultural Anthropology Michael Wesch. In his videos, Dr. Wesch focuses his camera on text written and re-written on pads of paper, computer screens or student flash cards. Reminiscent of the "Show Us Your Lark Pack" commercials of the 1960's, Dr. Wesch's camera leaps from pillar to post-it, constructing his critique out of a series of billboard announcements, classified ad notices and graffiti scrawls. Through a carefully scripted video bricolage Dr. Wesch constructs a narrative criticizing the current limitations of classroom pedagogy and exposing the true media environments that govern the Millennial Generation.

The persisting paradigm of most current classroom education is a remnant of the medieval academies where the curriculum consisted of a monk at a lectern reading from a sacred text while everyone in the class copied word for word at their desks. Education then consisted of making a copy of all "great" books for your own library. The model has survived into the industrial age because, if you add a series of bells and a rotation schedule, you prepare students to "graduate" from the classroom to the factory.

In the Information Age the Monkish/Assembly line mode of teaching is revealed as an arbitrary and perhaps counterproductive way to impart knowledge. As the mass media usurped the educational prerogative from the old school system, a student’s true learning occurred outside the classroom. This transformation was predicted over 50 years ago by Marshall McLuhan who noted that advertising was providing the epistemological foundations of our culture, moving pedagogical control from the classroom the boardroom. As computer-based new media supplant the mass media, the paradigm is shifting once again.

The techniques of print, billboard and mass media advertising are not adequate to create the new curriculum of the internet community, although many are trying to fit this square peg in that round hole. Searching for new "business models" to rationalize the internet, corporate advertisers think they can bend the aesthetics of the internet to the requirements of consumerism. The problem here is that advertising itself is a deadend epistomology where the transcendental characteristics of consumer products have determined the logic of our cultural narrative. As "one to many" product factories give way to "many to many" production communities, the product becomes subservient to the process, and narrative control shifts from the producer to the consumer.

As represented in his videos, Dr. Wesch is clearly a product of the advertising paradigm. Creating the content for the New Media out of the aesthetics of the old media, Dr. Wesch's videos owe more to print, billboard and mass advertising than to the wiki inspired internet. In twenty years his student subjects will create their own critiques that draw from the paradigms of instant messaging, wikis and media multi-tasking. We mass media suckled, advertising educated old-timers may very possibly find these millenial narratives incomprehensible.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Randi Rhodes and The First Amendment

Air America Radio suspends Randi Rhodes for using the "W" word.

In the 1919 case Schenk v. The United States, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech doesn't permit someone to falsely yell "fire" in a crowded theater. That interpretation of our Constitutional rights was brought up to date today when the management of Air America Radio suspended talk show host Randi Rhodes for calling Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton "whores." Ms. Rhodes' live tirade was not broadcast on the Air America network. We know about it because it was captured on tape and made available for endless viewing on YouTube.

When our Founding Fathers added the First Amendment to the Constitution, they didn't anticipate two things: first, that there would someday be radio and radio talk shows, and second, that there would someday be YouTube. If they had, they would have included a clause like, "Freedom of speech shall not be abridged, except when talk show hosts use foul language when describing a political candidate and the whole thing is captured on video and shown on YouTube."

Surely the owners of liberal talk radio network Air America were thinking of this Constitutional omission when they suspended Ms. Rhodes. But let's be clear about the intent here. No one would argue that these prominent politicos, Ferraro and Clinton, are literally whores in the Elliot Spitzer sense of the term. If you go to YouTube and watch the video (14,907 views as of 2:40 on Thursday) it is clear that Ms. Rhodes was using the term to mean that these women will "sell" themselves to the highest bidder for political advantages. (How else to explain Ms. Clinton's recent decision to appear before Richard Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial board?) I would argue that that appearance makes Ms. Clinton less of a whore and more of a hooker, but let's not quibble over technicalities.

It is OK to call Ms. Clinton a murderer, a fraud, and other foul names if you are writing for the Tribune-Review (see their coverage of the Vince Foster suicide). It is unacceptable for a radio talk show host to use pejorative language against Ms. Clinton before a small group of appreciative listeners if it is captured on tape and ends up on YouTube. So we have to assume that in this case the medium is truly the message.

Every society has its taboos. Our culture distinguishes "polite" language from "foul" language. The management of Air America Radio would have us believe that this modern taboo trumps any Constitutional rights or privileges we may think we have.