Herald Survey

Published 26th June 1997

When John Patten was Education Minister his rhetoric resounded at a Conservative conference, "What will they give us next? Chaucer with chips? Milton with mayonnaise? Mr Chairman, I want William Shakespeare in our classrooms, not Ronald McDonald." What he failed to see and what any cries of "dumbing-down" would ignore is that popular culture and the classics, the cannon of English literature, are not mutually exclusive.

The debate about standards and the perceived role of "popular culture" - television, videos, and computer games - in dragging them down has been ill-informed, partly because, in Scottish terms at least, the data about media-related activities of young people is nine years old. Today, however, we publish the findings of the most authoritative survey of its kind - based on returns from 1000 second year pupils in 36 secondary schools throughout Scotland - which provides up-to-date information about young people's reading, TV and video watching, listening and (for the first time) computer game-playing and Internet-using habits.

Girls might be spending almost 37 hours a week reading, viewing or listening to media texts and boys even more at 42 hours per week but they are careful about their choices and they are not just passive receivers.

Young people reported in the survey that they visited the cinema about once a month. The girls say they like comedy, the boys action. Two weeks ago 1000 older pupils attended screenings of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet at local cinemas in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Greenock. The play is a set text in Higher English and the pupils had been in fifth year for only a few days. The film, directed by Barry Luhrman, opens with the prologue being read by a television newsreader and moves very quickly into stomach churning zooms and very fast cuts. But the iambic pentameter remains. The film is true to the text.

Teachers report an unusually high demand for copies of the play to be read in pupils' own time. When presented in an accessible way, it seems that the language is not a barrier after all. In his day Shakespeare was writing for a contemporary audience and no doubt some people were appalled at the bawdy language, gratuitous violence and sexual content.

If modern texts are valuable for the way in which they lead back to the classics, they are also of value in themselves. Young girls have chosen soap operas and the soap-derived Friends as their favourite television programmes. Soaps have interweaving narratives, ongoing stories and a range of characters which often crosses the generation gap. The storylines, although often treated in a shallow manner, raise playground discussions of "the issues". The fact that some soaps did not appear in the survey suggests that the audience is not just "drinking in" whatever the broadcasters put out. EastEnders , for example, plays out teenage concerns and it should be no surprise that it is popular with 13-year-old girls.

Perhaps of more concern is the significant demand for The Spice Girls, the female Monkies of the 90s. With their male-controlled and male-promoted "girl power" The Spice Girls offer a fairly safe version of post-feminism and many representations of them are repressive, rather than progressive.

The findings of the Herald / Media Matters survey support the need for Media Studies in schools, not to give popular culture a sound thrashing in the classroom but to raise the issues and look at the vested interests behind the images being presented. In a short space of time The Spice Girls will have been replaced by the next version of "teenage rebellion" ( the recently all powerful Oasis has already lost the support of the girls surveyed) and it is important to see the manufacture of such images as an industry, even if you like the music.

The survey also illustrates that there are dissenters; the ones who were not afraid to say they listened to classical music or Country and Western; the one who said that Frank Sinatra is his favourite singer.

Statistics that boys are reading more - reading more books, reading more magazines, reading more newspapers, reading more information from the Internet - are also something to welcome. In recent surveys boys have been shown as failing at school and yet in their own time, in their own way, Scottish boys are more involved with language and information than they were ten years ago.

They may be less active but they're not just wasting time.

Girls, on the other hand are spending less time with the whole range of media texts than their predecessors. This may be a more worrying statistic. Does it suggest that the media is catering more for the stereotypical male tastes; action and sport?

Perhaps in turning off, the girls are rejecting what is the "dumbing-down" of some aspects of the media, usually that which shout loudest about the lowering of standards. Are media texts becoming more macho?

The amount of time that boys are spending on more violent computer games is significant. The debate about the impact of such activities and their potential for de-sensitising participants has a long way to run. What is obvious is that multimedia has a potential for good as well as for bad and it would be a disservice to right it off because of some of the current content.

Within five years it is estimated that the majority of jobs in America will demand Informaion Technology skills. You can bet that Britain will not be far behind.

One of the disappointments in the survey is the minority of pupils who use educational computing programs although at 29% the proportion who have accessed the Internet is encouragingly high, as is the role that schools seem to be taking in providing that access.

With the introduction of a Media Studies Higher in the Higher Still reform of upper secondary schooling, schools are being asked to recognise the role of media texts in today's society. The demands of the proposed syllabus defy anyone to call the framework a Mickey Mouse subject.

In the early twentieth century the great threat to the curriculum was the relative newcomer, English literature. At the beginning of the twenty-first century Media Studies might still face a similar backlash.

Ignoring the choices young people are already making will not enrich their experience of the media or help them to make sense of the world around. Media Studies in the curriculum should encourage and perhaps even validate real personal choice. The findingds of our survey highlight the relevance. of this increasingly important subject.

The survey also reveals a need to promote Scottish media texts to young people. Scottish newspapers are well represented but where are the Scottish novels, television programmes, films and music?

Media courses are now offered in nine Scottish universities and in numerous further education colleges.

The media industries risk their future audiences by ignoring young people and cultural bodies have much to do in ensuring that the youth audience is addressed,

Media production in Scotland is on the increase but is it reaching the teenage audience at home?

The survey suggest probably not yet.

What they watch ...
Listening to the background noise ...
Dawn of the computer age ...
What they read ...

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Changes last made on: Mon 20th Sept 19:35:58 1999