Years ago I remember a particularly influential professor who required that each student in his class volunteer or perform some community service as part of the course requirement. His explanation was simple: Students are idea-rich but experience-poor.
Now that I am a professor, I’m beginning to question his premise. I find that most of my college students are both idea- and experience-deprived. In fact, if I use a standard text, more often than not an outbreak of MEGO – My-Eyes-Glaze-Over – quickly overtakes the classroom. But one remedy I’ve found to that is the MEOW approach – My-Eyes-Open-Wide. And my most constant companion is alternative media.
Alternative media has several meanings to my students. When first introduced, they usually define it as unconventional, perhaps even radical or leftist information. Since most students – like most of the administration – are suspicious about such material (it’s "biased" and "unobjective," they assume), I break them in gently. First, I simply require that they regularly read the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. We analyze news coverage of foreign policy events or crisis situations and read the op-ed pages in order to get inside the heads of the newsmakers. It soon becomes obvious, of course, that these media aren’t objective, either.
Then the real education begins. For example, I recently used the film The Panama Deception in my international politics course. This 1993 Academy-award winning documentary on the 1989 US military invasion of Panama, code-named Operation Just Cause, makes an impassioned argument for the public’s right to know what government is doing with taxpayer money. It makes an equally strong case that the status quo media often perform like cheerleaders for, rather than watchdogs of, government operations. After the showing, I asked the class to write a short review of the film.
Here’s a sample of their questions and comments: "How well do citizens really understand their countries? How informed are we about real life issues that may have a dramatic impact on our futures? Are the people that we choose to lead our countries making bad decisions and then hiding them from the public? Unfortunately, sometimes we aren’t aware of what is going on around us. The media is basically our main source of information regarding national and international news. However, sometimes they choose to include only certain interviews. Even more so, they are often kept away from the Ôaction,’ so that the public eye is left blind."
Not a bad start.
A young woman from Russia shared the following: "The Panama Deception gives us a clear picture of how unfaithful the politicians of the country can be and how blinded the citizens may become because of the constant lies from somebody they are controlled by. That is why it is extremely important for every citizen to take an active part in the political activities to help to decide the future of the country – to vote for or against the members of your government."
Finally, a young man from Romania wrote: "The United States is viewed by the entire world as a symbol of freedom and democracy. As a superpower, the US is expected to promote and protect democracy not only within its bounds, but everywhere in the world. In the recent past, the US has been involved in several conflicts outside its borders, supposedly to defend democracy and to protect the lives of US citizens. Due to the nature and the setting of these conflicts, one could argue that the main reason for the US getting involved was to enforce its economic, political, and military interests in the respective regions of the world."
Well, that about sums it up.
It’s not uncommon for students to get really angry when exposed to alternative media like The Panama Deception. They feel cheated. Why weren’t they taught this history in high school? Why doesn’t a government that espouses human rights practice what it preaches? And why do the mainstream media, with those trustworthy news anchors Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw, misinform and disengage citizens? Very soon they realize that power over the means of communication is a political and economic issue, and that alternative media can be liberating.
One way to help them work toward awakening is to focus on the communication needs of a democratic society. As one student asked about US intervention in Panama, "Why am I learning about this now?" Part of the answer comes from a scavenger hunt for the information readily available and mass-produced. For example, we take field trips to chain bookstores and supermarket check-out lines. What subjects are prominently displayed? Anything political? Anything truly controversial outside of sex?
Students are surprised at the narrow range of subjects – mostly non-political, non-movement-oriented, focused on individual anxiety or technologies – make-up, exercise equipment, a new car that can assuage any problem. This promotes the illusion that individuals are the sole source of responsibility and power in society. If you don’t like yourself, alter your appearance or work harder. This has the effect of making individuals feel powerless, incomplete, and detached. Alternative media, on the other hand, place individual responsibility within an historical or social context.
Another exercise is to divide students into groups and have them tape the same news programs and a sample of prime-time programming. Who’s invited to appear on panel shows? What are the sitcom themes? How many popular entertainment programs mention a union or labor movement, women’s or gay rights? Students very quickly see that there’s little dissent or diversity of opinion. This first-hand experience makes them open – even downright hungry – for alternative material. It becomes clear that what the experts keep telling us about "giving the public what it wants" comes up short.
How can we offer more brands of salad dressing than perspectives? Because most mainstream media are advertising-dependent, and advertisers don’t like controversy or anything that questions state or corporate power. If we want more programs that educate us about global human rights, for the moment at least, we’ll have to finance these projects ourselves. Governments and corporations certainly aren’t going to do it.
Then, there’s the startling lack of dissension among standard political science texts. Here’s a discipline focused on resource allocation and power relationships, and the best it can do is pit the Henry Kissinger against Madeleine Albright worldview. If you want to study international politics, the standard fare is classic realpolitik, emphasizing the state and its monopoly on force. Only recently has there been some opening to consider non-state actors like NGOs. Meanwhile, the really significant NGOs – multinational corporations – continue to consolidate their power.
As an educator and activist, I test the boundaries of my discipline by using alternative film, video, and readings in the classroom, particularly stories about people struggling for change. Students often arrive in college with the idea that it’s not necessary for them to learn about making social change in society. We have experts in Washington or on Wall Street to do that for us. But the power of alternative media is its commitment to reveal that most of the dramatic social changes – whether it’s women’s rights, human rights, or civil rights – aren’t imagined by experts or handed down by presidential decree.
In the end, social change isn’t a semester class. It’s an organizing principle. It arrives through waves of dialogue, meeting, strategizing, and direct action. Not all of my students will take to the streets. But this I know. With repeated exposure to alternative media, the MEOW becomes a roar.
Nancy Snow teaches political science at New England College.