My first discipline-specific field of study was film. Somewhere in my high school years I saw film as a text and the sort befitting the same theory and criticism as we provided language and literature, and I set off to devour not only audiovisual artifacts, but theorists and critics of the field. My first professional organization was the Society for Cinematic Studies. Over a decade before I decided on a doctorate in education I was analyzing educational film strips. My 24th birthday was spent watching Russian epic film as part of a lightly-populated University of Texas film series. I have no doubt I came off as a hifalutin know-it-all (just talking about it in past tense looks self-important), but at the time I did not care; having seen film from a critical perspective I did not see how or why I would ever go back.
I say this not to establish cache or cultural credit in a subculture, but as prologue to how I was (formally and informally) trained to view film. Subject expertise changes popular perceptions into more nuanced understandings of situations; there is much truth to the Socratic notion that greater knowledge points out the spaces where knowledge does not exist and to know more is to realize how much knowledge remains unknown. All media becomes a textual discourse negotiating author intention, popular perception, critical theory, production theory and sociocultural assumption. When people bemoaned watching film or TV with me, I did not understand; it was not like I did not enjoy what we were watching, but my enjoyment came from a space somewhere within this web. I cannot consciously admit I thought myself better for having read theorists and applied critical lenses, but I am sure I held my approach as superior: I watched what I considered good media and negotiated what I considered the hoi polloi content.
My son is four years old. He is like many four year olds, I imagine: he is precocious, energetic, creative, willful, sweet. At this point he sees no hate or anger in the world. He enjoys imaginary play, stuffed animals, and every color. And he loves all things Disney. Disney characters, Disney toys, Disney theme parks, Disney media…if it has the Disney brand, my son is likely a fan.
Prior to moving to the Pacific Northwest I lived in Southern California for 9 years, and while working on my dissertation between 2012 and 2014 I had the affordance to leave the full-time workforce and focus on my academics. My wife, an independent contractor and consultant, was able to make her own schedule, and my tutoring and contracting allowed me to do the same, which meant we could designate a random Tuesday and Wednesday as our weekend and head to Disneyland in Anaheim to avoid the crowds and enjoy the splendor. In our courtship days we called our visits to Disneyland Mouse Therapy, and after we were married our anniversary presents to one another became season passes. Our son’s birth slowed down our trips, but when he grew into a toddler we returned, he saw Mickey Mouse, and we continued to return. Frequently.
As a parent, these pictures bring me a flood of joyous emotion. I remember the excitement of meeting characters in person, of the giant plush hug, the larger-than-life stuffed animal that was somehow alive and interacting…to watch my son enjoy it perhaps could be conveyed in some evocative turn of phrase, but those pictures tell the story. The second one in particular, with Dug walking him to a part of the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, is a new part of the Disneyland experience, where characters spend their time in the park often in greater interaction including playing games.
And there is a theoretical problem up there: Redwoods National Park as a concrete wilderness camp complete with paint-by-numbers quests to receive a sticker, the personalized Disney experience built on algorithmic models that show the best times for characters to be in the park and change the ratio depending on the projected number of people in the park on a certain day, even the corporate edict for personalization to include some modicum of quasi-personal touch, such as requiring employees to acknowledge those wearing buttons indicating a birthday or marriage or anniversary. Disney is a corporation that sells a world vision, and that world vision is not only counter to extended reality but in many cases it is oppositional. I attended college in Louisiana, took my first trip to New Orleans and balked at the smell of Canal Street and the filth lining the brick roads in the French Quarter — this is not New Orleans; I saw New Orleans in Disneyland and this is not what I saw! Disney sells a vision grounded in Disney and nothing else, an aw, shucks! There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow… A suitcase and a dream simulacrum built on a loosely defined Golden Age of Walt Disney imagination, infusing every element of production from historical markers in theme parks to contemporary animated cartoons for a young audience.
I read the Global Disney Audiences Project, I poured over Henry Giroux’s The Mouse that Roared, I know full well about the drive for Disney to provide brief video clips drowning in hyperbole in lieu of knowledge. I am presenting research at an EdTech conference about where Walt Disney’s conception of edutainment is an historical marker in the lit review that leads to the problems I pinpoint in open digital resources today. I agreed with the protagonist in the woefully under appreciated 1998 film After Life who mocked a young person’s idea that a trip to Disneyland was her favorite memory. I take issue with the manner in which Disney promotes culture and ideology, from its youngest-trending TV shows to its marketing efforts around baby boomers. There is a lot concerning about Disney.
Yet it is a Thursday evening and my son is going to choose between a Frozen sing-along or watching Cars, and either way I am going to be thrilled to watch and take part.
I have spent a lot of time on various sites articulating that much of our crisis of education comes from social and cultural ideas of the consistency of an education. At my new academic institution, I set forth a vision of social constructivist learning in everything we do, a foundation of research questions and objectives but a drive toward imagining learning well beyond the archaic and the didactic. This permeates the written and spoken world in my department. But when it came time to display this in poster form, my department struggled to visualize the new message.
Mission statements and purpose statements and strategic visions and organizational charts and every other industrial psych instrument we implement to help fuel change must work against preconceived notions of what society and culture value. And in Western society, the classroom is the domain of the expert and the content reigns supreme. No matter how much work is done in pedagogy, learning theory, EdTech as transformative (not disruptive), OER, etc., we are fighting the culture which heralds the charismatic leader at the front of the class, transforming through guile and moxie*.
*The other cultural icon of the instructor is the adult buffoon, where the younger protagonist views schools as the antagonist and the humans in positions of power are heads of the Hydra.
This is not necessarily a nefarious sales pitch but often a pragmatic situation — it is easier to focus narrative around a sage on the stage rather than a course environment built on active learning and problem-based inquiry where the instructor is a source of knowledge but works not through canon but facilitation. Even in Dead Poets Society, although Mr. Keating’s teaching practices promote more progressive pedagogy than the traditional (emulated by Headmaster Norman Lloyd), it is only because of Keating that the boys stretch their potential (Knox Overstreet gets the girl, Neil Perry pursues acting, Todd Anderson realizes his inner strength and shows Mr. Keating how large a difference he made). This creates a conundrum where in news media pundits surrounding education decry it as a system designed around the needs of the teacher rather than the student, but our cultural artifacts celebrate the teacher as the strength of the process, the independent variable of the system. It also fails to engage progressive pedagogical changes; rather, it celebrates a timeline of societal style trumpeted as unique pedagogy: Mark Thackeray becomes Joe Clark becomes Louanne Johnson becomes Dewey Finn.
Educators are excellent at reinventing the wheel in lieu of engaging the research field, and pundits are excellent at rehashing the planks of a longstanding education is broken conversation despite mounds of evidence showing the failures of these dusted-off solutions. Perhaps part of the problem with our debate on education is the unspoken: how is education presented to us in our media-rich lives? How do the various mechanisms of culture present education, and how does such a presentation align with or oppose the research field, the media discourse and the prevailing pundit thought of the day? What does it mean that the number of students in a classroom on a scripted television show has decreased while it has increased in schools across the nation? We realize the message we send when we write think pieces or link to research or point to press releases; what is the message sent amidst the media superstructure?
As the amount of media in our society increases, there are more and more opportunities to analyze and track the social and cultural perceptions of education: what within the system important and what does it look like. At the same time, there is an entertainment element to media inherent to the term, and any analysis is wonting if it ignores this aspect. Henry Giroux, critical pedagogue and film scholar, attempts to resolve the critical and the entertainment in a personal discussion about his pedagogy in Breaking into the Movies: Pedagogy and the Politics of Film (2001):
As a subversive resource to enhance my teaching, I focused on film in ways that seem to ignore how it functioned as a site of affective investment, mobilizing a range of desires while invoking the incidental, visceral, and transitory…I used theory as a way of legitimating film as a social text rather than as a site where different possibilities of uses and effects intersect. I wanted students to read film critically, but I displayed little concern with what it meant to dome than examine how a given film as a relatively isolated text was implicated in the production of ideologies. (586)
There is great opportunity for study and textual analysis of how education is portrayed in film, as well as how film production companies market their products as tools of learning. But being bound too tightly to textual analysis means much of the nuance of culture and society is lost for hyper-focused conceptual abstraction. To critique film for being divorced from reality is appropriate; however, much film critique divorces itself from reality in a similar fashion, meaning nothing is truly gained for the culture.
I plan to use this space to review films with significant educational contexts: content sold as edutainment, stories about teachers, stories about students, stories about the institution, documentaries in their various incarnations. I will incorporate critical theory, apply various lenses, and in some cases develop instruments to test hypotheses. At the same time, I will not forget the entertainment aspect of these artifacts or the lived experience outside the analysis. I will look at how Disney sells education, portrays educators and develops institutions, but at the same time I will not forget what this looks like from my son’s eyes.