the Golden Age of Education that never was

The history of edutainment, a mid-20th Century portmanteau used to describe the mix of broadcast contents with an educational context, is a fascinating field, and Audrey Watters’ Story of The Learning Channel is an important addition to a critical reader on the relationship of broadcast media, ownership rights and the education superstructure.  Noting how the current state of The Learning Channel TLC evokes responses of, “Remember when it was called The Learning Channel,” Audrey presents the history of the infrastructure which created what was a public-public partnership between government agencies to provide satellite-based educational television (conceptualized in the 1960s, partnered with more public agencies and enacted in the early 1970s), and how public-public became public-private became private became a host of barrel-scraping reality TV fare.  It is an excellent read.

The article ends with questions to consider when engaging broadcast television, education, edutainment and the other terms and subfields that inhabit this realm:

  • Who owns the “pipes”? Who owns the means by which content is transmitted? Who owns the satellites? Who owns the spectrum? Who owns the cables? Who owns the network?
  • What do we mean by “educational content”? In particular, how has our definition of “documentary” changed over the last few decades? How does this shape what media – in form and in content – enters the classroom?
  • How have regional educational agencies and distance education providers – particularly those offering for-credit classes – been affected by the commercialization of content and delivery?
  • How has education become increasingly commercialized? How might education on the Internet and via various computer technologies be following down that very path taken by education on cable TV?

This topic intersects with my emerging research; I am thankful to Audrey for this discussion and the energy behind it.   I would like to join the conversation as part of an emergent discussion.

In 2014, Coursera announced a partnership with, a start-up launched from within Discovery Communications, whom Coursera heralded as the parent company of Discovery and Animal Planet. (Note:  in November spun off and away from the Discovery Communications paternity) At the time, I blogged about the partnership, briefly touching on the histories of Discovery and The Learning Channel, as well as the media conglomerate that would form from their 1990s merger/acquisition and growth. I framed this in the context of edutainment, which took me down a whirlwind of Disney history, resulting in scholarship on the relationship between the learning objects/resources of the OER movement, edutainment, and the ‘free-as-in-beer’ resources one finds in Coursera/edX/  The expansion of this research continues; at the present I am adopting a postmodern lens to look at the history of broadcast contents within education, in their utilitarian existence as well as their social/political/cultural/philosophical/power contexts too.

Why postmodernism?  There are a number of reasons, but in the context of this debate I have more and more seen a complex historical relationship between public and private interests in education, and power struggles that may seem new are in fact deep-rooted, perhaps to the point that they are foundational to the infrastructure of compulsory education.  For example, Walt Disney is credited with the term edutainment as far back as 1946.  Often this is related to the development of the True Life series of nature videos, which played as bumpers in cinema houses prior to featured shows.  However, Disney was in the classroom in 1946.

The story of The Story of Menstruation is fascinating; at its briefest, it is a 1946 partnership between Disney and Kotex, one which 1.5 million students likely watched.  From one perspective, it was an attempt to bring modern and accurate science into sexual education courses, for the benefit of schoolchildren.  From another, it was an opportunity to use an existing film mechanism (Disney’s WWII propaganda section) to roll out contents for school children.  And from a third, it was an early introduction of commercial partnerships in the world of education (Kotex, a co-sponsor of the film, was the #2 feminine hygiene product at the time to Proctor & Gamble’s Tampax.  There are also existing critiques along lines of gender, class and power, and we are potentially building a pedagogical critique here.

If we agree with John Modell and Madeline Goodman, two sociologists of adolescence who argue in ‘Historical Perspectives‘ (At the Threshold:  The Developing Adolescent; 1990) that high school as compulsory becomes part of the American ethos in the early 1930s (in part due to the Great Depression and the lack of work options for children of lower classes), there is scant time between the establishment of high school as a space of equity and the private sector’s involvement in contents and curriculum.  This throws into question ideas of a Golden Age of education with heavy public backing; while the increases made via the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act, and the Civil Rights Act all are designed to be legislations to promote equity, the equity is not in a sacrosanct public good as much in a negotiated space of public good and private enterprise (and, when 1958 rolls around, a space of crisis and in need of more management).

This harkens back to a longstanding debate in distance (and ergo online) education.  Is the development draped in equity; after all, distance ed enabled a greater number of citizens to engage educational attainment than previously in history?  Or is it draped in pragmatism, indicative of an industrial age allowing low cost of production and a penny post to pass materials back and forth?  This is problematic because we cannot easily abstract one from the other — the equity argument is in lockstep with the pragmatic argument, meaning equity for upward mobility is wedded somewhat to career growth and industrialization.

I look at early documentaries — not just titles like the seminal documentary Nanook of the North (questioned as to its historical accuracy versus a creation of reality), but even to the very earliest film work from Thomas Edison and Sandow the Strongman — and I wonder how much of documentary has ever been, well, document as objective.  Documentary is a contradiction in terms, because every filmmaker has the power of camera and the power of edit.  Even Frederick Wiseman, arguably the most important cinema verite documentarian (whose two films on schooling, High School and At Berkeley, are some of the best works of film ever IMO), gets to choose what to film and what to cut even if his style is to not ‘interject himself’ into the subject matter.  The educational contents of the original Learning Channel, those 1970s course contents, are markedly different from the Histori-docs produced on the Discovery Communications networks (and there’s a space to critique the History Channel/University of Oklahoma relationship here too).  But before we bemoan the change, we need to identify what it is we are really looking for.  Documentary film is largely ideology — at its most base that ideology looks like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, but I would argue there is a lot more similarity than difference when comparing TLC shows to the documentary work of Davis Guggenheim, Morgan Spurlock or even Michael Moore.  The technicalities of documentary have certainly changed and allowed for greater production elements to hold attention; I would question the idea that those elements have led to less robust documentaries or if perhaps it just illuminates a deficiency of the form.

How does this relate to the world of broadcast educational contents?  I think about the history of Encyclopedia Britannica with educational filmstrips in the 1940s and 1950s, and the lack of favor such artifacts held in the 1970s and 1980s (to the point many of the originals were thrown in dumpsters rather than preserved or archived), the renaissance of television in the classroom in the 1990s with Channel One and Cable in the Classroom, the politics behind their commercialization or their ties to industry, their eventual recession from classrooms, Khan Academy or MOOC du jour today — and when I hold all of this in my head, I am left with the feeling not only that we are reinventing a flat tire in education, but that the education ideal as public good and upward mobility is faulty too, that education may in some cases have been able to lift people up but this was never the design and never the intention of this superstructure.

This is a loaded statement which deserves unpacking, much can be found throughout blogs here and elsewhere, and will continue.  The question I propose: as we critique education and question the models/instruments/statements/proclamations made today, should we also question some of the most core assumptions we have made about the function and purpose of education?

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)


  1. A lot of my friends in New Hampshire worked for Ken Burns, so I’m probably biased here. As you say, there’s a reason they call it a Ken Burns film — there’s an ideology at the center of everything, at least when you’re using a certain set of (very useful) tools. The Ken Burns take on most things is pretty predictable. It’s the synthesis of grand sweep of history narratives with a partial refocussing away from great men to the unknowns, daily life, and unheard voices of history.

    Still, I look at the whole Latinos in WWII issue. The fact his WWII movie got dinged for lack of Latino perspective shows our expectations for what that film needed to be, and the more extraordinary fact that in response to criticism an entire half-hour was added to it speaks both to Burns’s personal expectations and the beneficial effect that working off public money can (sometimes) have. (Though again, knowing the people involved I know that Burns felt adding the material was the right thing to do — if I remember correctly there were some serious ramifications to trying to change a film that was prepped to ship).

    So it’s not really the ideology that bothers me, it’s always there, and by PoMo punt I don’t mean to imply it doesn’t exist or that there is a world outside of ideology. (Besides, I’m a postmodernist half the time, we all are now, aren’t we?).

    Rather, what I’ve sensed is that documentaries (especially if we lump reality shows in there) have become more and more about signalling participation in a given tribe, and reaffirming worldviews.

    And if I’m right, part of what’s going on is in this fractured world no one has to build a documentary for everyone anymore. The market is sliced and diced down to which documentary would have the highest projected SUV sales. It’s just become normal to think like this, and even where that may not be the intention of the director, it’s what the system floats to the top.

    These thoughts are scattered and maybe wrong — let me know

    • That’s a fascinating take on the documentary explosion of late. I can say that 10 years ago when I was a hybrid film and creative writing grad student, the establishment of documentary filmmakers were not thrilled that their field was seen largely as an extension of Michael Moore. At the same time, one of those griping the most would later be featured on Real World: Austin as an expert, so everything is meaningless.

      That we have quick and easy and high-quality access to create, edit and distribute film today is part of the reason for the perpetuation of tribal marketing. Where we run afoul is when audience equates the medium to the broadcast of Truth rather than the creation of truth. Tribes are making their mark and defining their territory; how we read their artifacts is a different situation.

      I once proposed a multimedia art exhibit/installation on documentary film called The Truth Genre; I got busy with other things, the MOOC took off and it ended up in mothballs. Perhaps I need to dust it off and find somewhere in the PNW to put this on.

  2. Also Super Size Me does as much damage to the scientific understanding of the public as creationism. Just saying.

  3. A really interesting read. For me there’s a question if anything is ever free from ideology – from documentary to research. Even the raw data has been influenced by ideology in terms of what to gather. What I think is perhaps increasingly important is for that ideology to be apparent. Rather than being hidden, inferred or implied – If it was embedded like a piece of metadata then it allows the participants a perspective, rather than trying to see everything from an objective point of view. 

    Unpacking the ideology around education is a really important concept at the moment. There’s a need for institutions, politicians and teachers to actually articulate what they think education is for. Education is treated as an homogenous entity but the reality is that it’s a space that allows diversity and delivers it in spades. I’ve always liked the idea of university as a form of the root – the universal – a container for diversity. That ideologies can coexist – it’s when they’re hidden that we have a problem. 

    • I agree, but we need to remember that the root is for but one tree and not the globe. If we want to harken the original vessels of Higher Education 1000 years ago, those were local spaces with local needs. For them, education was a public and private good; and that is not the same as seeing Education as a Public or private good.

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