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A Call For Media Literacy Education in Orthodox Jewish Schools
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Director of Research and Projects, ATID

Orthodoxy and Media Literacy

Many Orthodox educators lament our students' involvement and immersion in contemporary popular culture and media.1 There is good reason for such lament, not the least of which are the wasted time, the violence, the explicit sexuality, the "shmutz," – ranging from the simply inane to the prohibited and corrupting – that are so commonplace in contemporary culture. But, fewer educators seem up to the task of addressing these concerns with students. It is certainly not enough to ignore student consumption of popular culture as an educational issue. Nor is it enough to tell students that they should watch less or no television, that facebook "friends" are not real friends, or that the content of some movies may be less than halakhic. All of this is true, but students likely already understand much of that, and, in addition, that negativity may blind us to important educational opportunities.

To begin with, a stated rejection of all media and popular culture is, for the most part, irrelevant.2 Even in much of the Haredi community, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox students will not shut themselves off from popular forms of entertainment and communication. As one expert on American youth culture put it, "American youth devote more time to media than to any other waking activity."3 I have little doubt that Orthodox Jews are different in some ways, but I also have little doubt that they are not all that different. Students are consumers of media. If all we can say about it is that it is bad, then those students will continue to be consumers of media, they will simply do so with less guidance than might be beneficial.

Furthermore, too much nay-saying of popular culture and entertainment is impossible because educators themselves are often consumers of popular media. Obviously, Torah educators will avoid halakhically problematic material, and hopefully have a more critical eye in what they do consume. Still, for so many educators, myself included, movies, music, television, or the Internet are part of their (admittedly limited) leisure repertoire, which makes simple condemnation difficult if not hypocritical.

Furthermore, we do not really want our students to be media-ignorant, since "The media are undoubtedly the major contemporary means of cultural expression and communication."4 That is, students will need to be media savvy to enter the workplace, to navigate the news, to succeed in higher education, to become intelligent consumers in the marketplace, and to make progress in their career and personal goals. We may prefer that they avoid the shallow (when not outright prohibited) kinds of mass entertainment, but we do want them to have media and cultural skills. They may pick up some of these skills by osmosis – youth are probably more subtle consumers of media than many adults, in some ways – but there are other skills that are harder to pick up that way.

The media literacy movement has been alive and well in North America for decades, and it is surprising how little attention it has gotten in Jewish day schools.5 To that end, it behooves religious educators to give some attention to the growing field of media literacy education. In the coming sections, I would like 1) to reflect on the distinction between "high" and "low" culture that seem intuitive to many educators, which has been central it constructing Modern Orthodox Torah-Umadda ideology, and which is flatly rejected by virtually every voice in the field of culture studies; 2) think about what media literacy education might look like in an Orthodox context; and 3) share some online resources that could help individual teachers or schools think about how they might incorporate media literacy into their educational efforts.

High, Low, and Torah U-Madda

Much of North American Torah U-Madda ideology has rested on a sharp distinction between high culture – encoded as good – and low culture – encoded as bad.6 And, many of us walk around with a sense that we understand that Mozart is "better" than hip-hop, Milton better than Dan Brown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art better than street graffiti. But there are good reasons to question the ease with which people make such distinctions. First, the categories are constantly changing. Shakespeare was once accessible to the "masses," and Jazz was once considered the lowest of the low, the most dangerous and degenerate form of music. Yet both of these have become high culture, for consumption almost exclusively by a self-selected elite.7 Second, the assumptions that high culture is inherently edifying, that consumption of high culture transforms the personality into something more refined, that consumption of low culture makes a person base, often do not pan out. Third, there are aspects of popular culture that are not simple or one-dimensional. There are, for example, movies that raise basic questions relating to the human condition and popular music that subtly challenges the faults in the social status quo.8

Modern Orthodoxy, I think, should listen closely to elements of these critiques as it attempts to figure out its relationship to popular culture and entertainment. However, there is one position in this debate that I think Modern Orthodoxy cannot easily accept, namely the relativistic claim that all distinctions between quality and lack thereof are baseless matters of taste, not subject to any arbitration. Even if this is true from a purely aesthetic perspective, religion and Torah (and, for that matter, education as a whole) are in the business of making value judgments. Orthodox Jews can more or less unabashedly declare that some things are better than others. Obviously, what is halakhically prohibited remains prohibited. Further, notions such as bitul zeman, the concept of hatzne'a lekhet, tikkun olam (broadly defined), heshbon hanefesh,9 and a broader sense of what can help contribute to an increase in service of God create points of reference from which Orthodox Jews can attempt to distinguish between what culture is valuable from a Torah (U-Madda) perspective and what is not.10 What I am claiming, however, is that the difference may not line up neatly along the lines of high and low.11

Be that as it may, Modern Orthodoxyís ideological reliance on a celebration of high culture has been challenged of late, not only by opponents of Torah U-Madda, but by some of its proponents. In "insider" critiques of Torah U-madda ideology, William Kolbrener and Alan Brill have each pointed out that a distinction between high and low does not help the majority of Modern Orthodox laypeople, since they are, generally, not consumers of high culture. Kolbrener implicitly agrees that there is and ought to be a distinction between high and low, but he argues that that distinction has unfortunately failed to take hold in the community.12 But Brill goes further, seeing high culture's lack of relevance to the typical Modern Orthodox layperson as a challenge to Modern Orthodox ideology. Due to the nature of middle class suburban workaday life, consumption of high culture is not on the agenda of contemporary Orthodox laypeople. While Kolbrenner laments the preference for low culture (what he calls "Torah and entertainment"), Brill explains that what many Orthodox people need is less a Modern Orthodox ideology explaining why to read the classics, and more an ideology explaining how Torah can help guide their middle class suburban lives. The question, then, is not how to get them to read more sonnets, but to help them become better and more holy professionals, better and more holy spenders, better and more holy members of suburban nuclear families, better and more holy users of leisure time, better and more holy consumers of popular media.13

If we accept even part of Brill's critique – and I think that we should – than one new direction for Orthodox education and ideology is to help think through our relationship to the media. There is plenty of room for rejectionism and critique, pointing to those aspects of popular culture that are prohibited or otherwise indefensible from a religious perspective. But there is also room for an attempt to educate Modern Orthodox Jews to be better and more intelligent consumers of popular media and entertainment. In this context, media literacy education could be useful and helpful for Orthodox educational institutions.

What Media Literacy Education Might Be or Not Be in Orthodox Settings

If there is one area of media literacy which the Orthodox community has paid some attention to, it involves articulating the dangers of media consumption and television watching. Generally coming from within the Haredi camp, it is sometimes claimed that television directly leads people down a dangerous path toward violence, delinquency, substance abuse, and inappropriate sexual behavior, not to mention declined intelligence and cognitive abilities.14

In the larger community, the critique of media consumption comes in two versions. According to the right wing, often religious, version, there is a need to protect easily influenced youth from violence, sex, secularism, and perceived lack of values in the media. In the left wing version, the media is a dupe of the hegemonic cultural authority, and there is a need to protect children from the militarism and gender-racial stereotypes, which, it is claimed, undermines "authentic" and self-motivated experience or resistance to the status quo.

In the academic sphere, the notion that media consumption leads to certain beliefs and practices is referred to as the cultivation hypothesis, and it is subject to serious debate, with some social scientists decrying it as pseudo-science (while others defend it).15 Be that as it may, this approach leaves little room for educational possibilities beyond a "protectionist" attitude. In fact, "The protectionist stance is most prevalent among those who do not directly work in schools," in part because this approach underestimates the extent to which youth are attached to media, and overestimates the limited extent to which they are prepared to be told by powerful teachers how bad it is for them.16 But it seems to me that youth need more than protection. They need literacy and tools of understanding – a more comprehensive and systematic attempt at educating toward media literacy (which, I suspect, is likely to have a certain protective result as well).

The protectionist attitude and the reliance on the cultivation hypothesis is limited in another important way. They often fail to realize that consumers of popular culture are not passive, casually absorbing what is being thrust on them by a media machine. Certainly, media producers in todayís world do have a great deal of power to form the cultural environment in which we live, but consumers have much power as well. At one level, consumers choose what to consume and what not to consume. They need not and do not watch any movie that appears, need not and do not enjoy every popular band, need not and do not play every multi-player online role playing game. And producers are extremely sensitive to consumer tastes, changing the products to meet demand. At a deeper level, once consumers make choices, it does not matter what messages are values are "objectively" embedded in media text. It matters what the consumers make of those texts. It sounds plausible that there is some correlation between what is "said" and what is "heard," but it seems equally plausible that consumers are active participants in the meaning that they make out of what they consume.17

That is to say, students (and many other media consumers) are not stupid, and they understand that the images of violence, politics, sexuality, and gender that they see in the media are not accurate to the way these issues play out in the real world, and that these images need not dictate to them in a direct and linear way who they are, what they do, and what they believe.18 Inevitably, students must take those images, compare them to their own experiences, communicate about them with peers and others, and make some meaning out of the messages that the popular media are sending and of the very place of that media in their lives. This meaning-making is happening, willy-nilly, at all times. Media literacy education tries to make teachers, parents, and educators part of that process. It does so by working with media consumers – our students – and challenging them to become more intelligent, thoughtful, and critical. It asks them, and can provide them with tools, to understand, appreciate, and think about the media that, for the most part, they will consumer whether we educators like it or not.

Furthermore, the Orthodox community may be a particularly good context in which to conduct media literacy education. "Media literacy initiatives have been most successful in school communities where teachers, parents and students have a shared, common vision about their love-hate relationship with media culture."19 Certainly, Orthodox education is not without family-school tensions, but largely shared religious commitments by schools, families, camps, youth groups, and communities may allow for mutual reinforcement of media literacy messages from different institutions.

Of course, Torah education is a busy and expensive business, and adding yet another project to their already full to-do list is highly problematic. However, many of the suggestions and resources cited below would prove useful for teachers or administrators who want to include some kind of media literacy component in their educational program without adding new course requirements or staffing. It is relatively easy to include media literacy in passing in the course of other aspects of the curriculum. After all, teachers often use media in schools, and all the teacher need to do is to tweak existing materials to have some effect. Teachers who teach current events, especially, have such opportunities. Even a few-hour long unit on these issues in the course of a homeroom or social studies class can be advantageous. One need not institute a full-blown media literacy program in multiple grades to help students emerge from schools with more skills than they would have without it, especially if parents and institutions of informal education (like camps or youth groups) would do likewise as well.

Online Resources

  1. A working definition of media literacy education appears here: http://www.amlainfo.org/media-literacy/definitions. There is also a summary statement of the "Core Principles of Media Literacy in the United States," as articulated by leading media educators, http://www.ithaca.edu/looksharp/amla_principles.pdf. This link offers a worksheet based on the principles for evaluating media: http://www.amlainfo.org/uploads/xZ/Ff/xZFfNLvwOcfOjsWIKVqrsg/NAMLEKeyQuestions0708.doc
  2. The Center for Media Literacy has a very rich website, with best practices; a virtual reading room (including a shelf of "faith-based media literacy articles); an almost complete online archives of their magazine, Media and Values; suggestions for professional development; and much much more. That virtually everything on this site is free makes it that much more valuable. http://www.medialit.org/.
  3. http://www1.medialiteracy.com/home.jsp, much like the previous site, has many useful resources, though it is a bit more difficult to navigate. One nice feature, however, is the personalized guided tour and introduction to media literacy. Click on the red box near the upper right hand corner. Tell them a bit about yourself and how much time you have, and they will give you a brief introduction to media literacy education.
  4. The National Association for Media Literacy Education sponsors a website, http://www.amlainfo.org, which also includes lesson plans, resources, and the like. They have created the MEAL Project (Media Education, Arts, and Literacy), a systematic curriculum for media literacy education, one with a particular focus on students creating their own media.
  5. The MEAL Project was created in conjunction with the Bay Area organization, Just Think (http://www.justthink.org). They have a unique focus on family-based media education, something that I think critical for Orthodox youth, as well as peer-centered media education. See http://www.justthink.org/programs/family-media-forum. Their "Media Guides" help parents, peers, and educators think with kids about their own media use, and help to use media consumption as a jump-off point for other educational endeavors (http://www.justthink.org/resources/media-guides).
  6. The strength of the website of the Canadian Media Awareness Network is the lesson plans and educational games that you can use in your own educational environment. http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm (though many of them cost money). They have also conducted a massive study of the media usage of Candian children, available here, http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/research/YCWW/index.cfm.
  7. Two Jewish organizations have taken up the challenge of media literacy from a Jewish perspective. The Union of Traditional Judaism has created the media literacy program, "Taking the MTV Challenge" (MTV, meaning Media and Torah Values), which can be found here: http://www.utj.org/MTVChallenge/index.php. The Israel advocacy group, CAMERA (Committee For Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), has created its own "Eyes on Israel" curriculum. While their primary goal is Israel advocacy, they teach many useful tools of media literacy along the way. See http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=118&x_article=1402.
  8. For those dedicated to the idea, Media-L is a listserv for media literacy educators. You can subscribe here: https://mailman.nmsu.edu/mailman/listinfo/Media-L.
  9. Israelís www.daat.ac.il website has some Israeli material on the topic. See http://www.google.com/cse?q=%FA%F7%F9%E5%F8%FA+%E4%EE%E5%F0%E9%ED&cx=015758447251452153599%3A0_e_igd6nn8&lr=lang_iw&cof=FORID%3A0, the results of a search of their website regarding mass media. Also see http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Tochniyot_Limudim/Chinuch_Leshoni/olamot/tikshoretAmonim.htm, some brief information on Israelís curriculum from the Ministry of Education.
  10. Tzippi Keller of Herzog College in Alon Shvut wrote her MA thesis on critical viewing skills in religious education in Israel. It is available here: http://herzog.exlibris.co.il/F/BPSIU77P7R7LY6SK842N8DXRQUQKYCTC7KLBTNF6VETHA8Q7IA-05639?func=full-set-set&set_number=219018&set_entry=000002&format=999. Some of her other materials on using film in Jewish educational settings are available on line from the Herzog library. Click here: http://herzog.exlibris.co.il/F/GHVMJLQSFF4I23AVNH5LG7A9IT4VRQ8BCHS4X1HSP7XR9YKK5H-40841?func=find-acc&acc_sequence=000179450.
  11. 1 Media, popular culture, and entertainment are not the same thing, but there is enough overlap between them to use the terms interchangeably in this context.

    2 Elizabeth Thoman and Tessa Jolls, "Media Literacy Education: Lessons from the Center for Media Literacy," in Media Literacy: Transforming Curriculum and Teacher, ed. Gretchen Schwarz and Pamela Brown (Malden, MA: National Society for the Study of Education, 2005), p. 205.

    3 D. F. Roberts, "Media and Youth: Access, Exposure, and Privatization," Journal of Adolescent Health 27:2 (2000), p. 8.

    4 D. Buckingham, Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), p. 5.

    5 I have not conducted a systematic survey of schools, but an informal survey of acquaintances and a query to the Lookjed list turned up one individual who teaches a class in media literacy in an Orthodox high school.

    6 The most developed statement of this ideology is R. Aharon Lichtenstein, "Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict," in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures, ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Northvale, NJ: Aaronson, 1997), 217-292.

    7 See, for example, Lawrence W. Levine, "William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation," in Rethinking Popular Culture (Berkely, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 157-197. Many critics emphasize that distinctions between high and low are often used as tools by the elite to maintain their cultural hegemony.

    8 I have, here, conflated the critiques of the high/low distinction that reject the very notion that there are objective distinctions between quality and insipid, with those that claim that there is a distinction between quality and insipid culture, but that that distinction does not run neatly across the lines of high and low. For a survey of theories of popular culture with a particular focus on the history of the high/low distinction, see John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (Athens, GA: Georgia University Press, 1998). This book comes with an accompanying reader of primary sources in cultural theory: Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Athens, GA: Georgia University Press, 1998).

    9 I include this term because often media and popular culture produced by and for Orthodox Jews is caught in a rosy optimism that paints Judaism and Orthodoxy in the purest and most pristine light. Yet, one of the positive functions of the media and culture is to critique society from the inside, to point to its faults. Popular culture is part and parcel of contemporary society's heshbon hanefesh.

    10 For ideological reflections on Modern Orthodox uses of leisure, see Norman Lamm, "A Jewish Ethic of Leisure," in his Faith and Doubt (New York: Ktav, 1986), pp. 184-207 and Shalom Carmy, "Synthesis and the Unification of Human Existence," Tradition, 21: 4 (1985), pp. 37-51, available at http://www.atid.org/resources/carmy/pdf/clubmed.pdf.

    11 Nor should we trade in the high/low distinction for another one: the assumption that what we find edifying and/or entertaining is good, and what we don't find spiritually edifying is bad. (I once saw, perhaps in the comments on an Orthodox blog, an individual who viewed the Door's well-known song, "Break on Through to the Other Side," as a metaphor for the prayer experience of trying to transcend human limitations.)

    12 William Kolbrener, "Torah Umadda: A Voice From the Academy," Jewish Action, 64:3 (Spring, 2004), available at http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5764/5764spr/RAVLICHT.PDF

    13 Alan Brill, "Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda," The Edah Journal, 4:1 (2004), available at http://www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/4_1_brill.pdf. As an aside, a Haredi critic might argue that this claim only demonstrates that Modern Orthodoxy has sold out, that it is an ideology of compromise rather than of Torah ideals. Perhaps. However, I suspect that the Haredi community also includes many extensive consumers of popular culture. More for reasons of public relations and image, and less for reasons of substance, their educational and ideological institutions are less likely to be persuaded to trade in their official media rejectionism for a program of media literacy.

    14 See, for example, popular Haredi author and lecturer, Lawrence Kelemen, To Kindle a Soul (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 2001), pp. 153-191. The chapter is available online at http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/tvkelemen.htm.

    15 For a questioning approach to the hypothesis, see David Buckingham, Children Talking Television: The Making of Television Literacy (London and Washington, DC: Falmer Press, 1993), Chap. 1. For a more supportive position, see Craig A. Anderson, et al., "The Influence of Media Violence on Youth," Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4:3 (Dec. 2003), pp. 81-109, available at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/pspi/pspi43.pdf.

    16 Renee Hobbs, "The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement," Journal of Communication, 48 (1998), pp. 16-32, available at http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article2.html.

    17 In speaking to my own students about music lyrics, I regularly get the reaction, "I've heard that song a bunch of times, but I never listened to the lyrics." Certainly, this requires us to think cautiously about how media messages are absorbed by students.

    18 David Buckingham, After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), chap. 8, entitled "Children as Consumers." Also see Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Reed Larson, and Daniel Offer, "Beyond Effects: Adolescents as Active Media Users," Journal of Youth and Adolescence 24:5 Oct. 1995), pp. 511-518.

    19 Renee Hobbs, Seven Great Debates.

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