10.3 Media Skills and Civic Engagement

Some of the most promising work in mediactivsm has come via the Internet, using traditional and new institutions in wonderfully creative ways. No one knows more about the intersection of old and new than Henry Jenkins.

An author and professor, Jenkins ran the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before moving to the University of Southern California, where he is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts. For decades he’s been working on understanding the changes in media, and how they can spur civic engagement. He celebrates, among other developments, the fan clubs and comment sites that have sprung up around movies, television shows and pop musicians. He sees them as forms of social expression just as legitimate as conventional political commentary—and, moreover, as a bridge to greater political involvement.

We’ve moved ahead, Jenkins says, but not nearly far enough, “especially when we’re talking about the educational culture, which is remarkably resistant to technology, resistant to new methods, and certainly resistant to ideas of critical citizenship.” In a conversation, he continued:

We know we’ve lost ground in terms of civics, instruction through schools, in terms of the ability of school newspapers to investigate and publish information, in terms of classroom discussions of public policy issues. Teachers are often straightjacketed and schools and students certainly are, where we’re seeing bans on social network sites, on YouTube, all of the tools and platforms that are being used outside of school to foster a more participatory culture….

[Yet] if you go outside of school, if we look at the studies that are done pretty regularly by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, they’re finding 60–65% of American young people have produced media. A high percentage of American teens are involved in publishing some kind of blog or live journal online or participating in online forums…. Those kids who participate actively in game guilds and social networks and in networks in general are more likely to take the next step and be involved with the political activities of their local or national community. There is a direct connection that we’re starting to identify between participation in these kinds of cultural forums and participation in civic forums.

So outside of school we’re seeing dramatic gains. Inside of school, there’s a kind of no-fly zone that’s preventing people from being able to fully engage with these new practices.

My father used to say, never let schooling get in the way of your education. And this may be one of those contexts where schools are getting in the way, in many cases, rather than facilitating the acquisition of the kind of citizenship skills that you and I are interested in.

Jenkins, through his own work and observations of other efforts, points to a host of intriguing projects, some organized and some organic—and most taking place outside the formal education system. Global Kids, based in New York, has done what its name suggests: bringing children from around the world together, in mostly virtual ways, to understand public policy at the local level, but in a global context.

He also points to the Harry Potter Alliance, which comes out of the “fandom” arena: fans of cultural works who discuss those works and, at some point, start collaborating on their own, using the skills they’ve developed as fans and applying them in wider realms, including the news. Harry Potter challenges authority. As Jenkins explains, Harry Potter’s Alliance fans have “gone and said, ‘Okay, what would Dumbledore’s Army do in our time? Where is evil? What change can we bring about?’ So they’ve got 50 chapters worldwide, 100,000 young people involved in struggles over human rights issues, both abroad and in the United States.” This is exciting stuff.

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