"A escola ne Idade Midia" - School in the Media Age
Latin American Seminar - Rio de Janiero - 19 November, 2002
Planning meeting for the 4th World Summit on Media for Children
Dr. Patricia Edgar, WSMFC Foundation President
I have been asked to speak to you about the origins of the World Summit movement. This is both a personal and political story, but one that has relevance for you as teachers.
I began my career as a school teacher and then spent ten years in a university Faculty of Education teaching teachers. Then for 20 years I was Director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation. My experience has taught me why media programs for children are so important to their development.
Albert Einstein, who was famous for many things, once said: "If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairy stories. If you want them to be even more brilliant, read them even more fairy stories."
Einstein's instinctive opinion gained stature with the clinical work of the famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who worked with troubled children to help them achieve psychological maturity. Bettelheim taught these children how to cope with, and understand, their baffling anxieties and emotions through the reading of fairy tales.
In his acclaimed book 'The Uses of Enchantment', Bettelheim said: "There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our own very natures - the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, a-socially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that inherently all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes."
Fairy tales speak about a child's severe inner pressures in a way that a child unconsciously understands. These stories simplify life situations, using clearly drawn characters denoting good and evil. They entertain and they enlighten.
Yet in the West we are rewriting fairytales to sanitise the stories, because they are now seen as too harsh. This is a serious mistake. Bettelheim's work demonstrates that, in the desire to protect children, we are leaving them exposed. Good intentions are stripping them of access to resources they need to cope with and understand the world.
The original fairy tales give children much-needed hope, the hope that the gremlins under their beds and the monsters in their cupboards have forms and faces, and there is a champion who can best them, if not by thoughtfulness, cooperation and reason, then by the sword. What children urgently need from children's stories is not simply lessons in cooperative living, but lessons in resilience and the life-saving assurance that one can succeed - that monsters can be slain, injustice remedied, and all obstacles overcome on the hard road to adulthood.
Recently, further scientific evidence on the importance of stories in children's lives has come from Professor Kathy Silva, the early childhood expert based at Oxford University in the UK. Silva's research involved a sample of 3000 pre-school children. It demonstrates the need to re-value children by investing more time, money and effort into the early years. She and her colleagues studied thousands of children in their home settings and one of her findings is of particular interest.
She has concluded that family rules (like being tidy, having meals together, discipline, etc.) make less difference to children's social development than reading stories with them.
Children who are read to, and encouraged to read, are more cooperative, less anti-social (as well as cognitively more advanced), because stories help them think about what it's like to be in other people's shoes, what it feels like inside another human being. In other words, fictional stories (and of course, good quality television programs showing family life) can teach children emotional empathy, values, communication and conflict-management skills.
And those children who experience story-telling - while being more cognitively advanced - are better equipped to handle life successfully than those who don't.
We have also learnt through social science that there is not just one kind of cognitive skill or human intelligence. There are distinct intelligences for dealing with language, numbers, music, spatial information, use of one's body, interaction with other individuals, reflecting upon oneself and one's feelings. All normal children possess this range of intelligences (outlined in the work of Harvard Professor Howard Gardner and his book 'Frames of Mind - the Theory of Multiple Intelligence'). But each intelligence needs development, and story-telling is the means that is most effective in developing children's interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
The importance of story-telling is not reason enough to accept any old book, film or television program. We must discriminate, and we must decide what kind of stories we should be telling our children. Quality is all-important, and quality means a number of things.
Firstly, for reasons I have mentioned, stories should not be sanitised for children. They should be appropriate for the age group, but that is a different point. They must be authentic, and not speak down to children. Producing quality programs for children also means producing funny stories, sad stories, involving stories, for them and about them. It means providing them with a variety of program experiences that will stimulate and delight their imagination. As well, books and television should document what the environment is like for today's children, where they are, what they are doing, and what people and places are available to them. They should know about those who are involved with young people - teachers, health workers, youth workers, police - and they should understand the problems of the handicapped, the sick, the lonely, the old.
In short, they should know the society they live in as it is. Old situation comedies, cartoons and cheap, dull magazine programs do not provide this experience. Nor do programs from other cultures.
Of fundamental importance to the development of children's identity, confidence and well-being is a knowledge of their own cultural identity. Children must hear their own tribal stories. Universal stories need to be told, but applied within each culture. For if a "tribe does not own its own dreams, it dies as a tribe." (Tony Morphett, Australian script writer)
From another perspective, the social historian Francis Fukuyama in his book 'The Great Disruption', arrives at a similar view. He says: "True communities are bound together by the values, norms and experiences their members share. The deeper and more strongly held those common values, the stronger the sense of community. Preserving our sense of community is important for responsible social human behavior."
Over the centuries, oral story-telling has served the function of bonding community groups, and now, print, television and films serve that function for larger populations.
As the founder of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, I was strongly committed to the development and production of stories of depth and quality for Australian children. And I want to show you some brief clips from our programs shortly.
It is important to say that, practically, the production of these programs would not have been possible without the system of subsidy and regulation that governments in Australia have applied to the commercial television structure ever since television was first introduced in 1956. Philosophically, Australian governments have shared the values I have outlined. But governments need constant reminding of the importance of local story-telling, as such policies cost money and there are now very strong, conflicting pressures coming from the demands generated by global market forces.
Yes, there is a cost to children's programming. But there is a greater social cost when it is not provided, with tangible negative effects for society as a whole. The expression, "the impact on the bottom line", has become a cliché in the West, but one we must confront with strategic thinking.
Around 1992-3, I began to realise that production of the kinds of programs the ACTF wanted to make would no longer be viable without overseas financial participation. And with that money came a level of ownership, different motives and interference with our ideas. We needed to find compatible partners in order to continue our work.
The idea of a World Summit Movement began to grow in my mind. If we had won the argument to intervene in the market place in Australia to protect local children's programs, why couldn't the same strategies apply internationally or regionally, I thought. I initially put the suggestion of holding a Summit to a Roundtable meeting in Munich at Prix Jeunesse, and the movement grew from there.
My purpose in hosting the First World Summit (in Melbourne, 1995) was to build a base of like-minded people around the world who could form a powerful lobby group, stimulate program production for children where it was not happening and, in the process, find partners who shared the same values about children's programming.
A major concern was the big US media companies who were beginning to spread their tentacles throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. In my view, such companies undermine diversity. Children need diversity. We all do. The mind does not flourish without diversity.
The US children's channels each have their own recipe for programming. They are each promoting a brand and the local flavor they give within a territory is a token to the market. It is production driven by appearance rather than substance.
If economic efficiency were the only consideration, it would make sense for all programming to be generated from the United States, for they do it very well. However, they are producing for a culture that is very different from the huge variety of cultures that exist outside the USA.
What is happening today in the field of children's programming, and in communication generally, has to be informed by the broader debate about globalisation and the social issues this movement has spawned.
Globalisation is meant to signify integration and unity, and on the positive side, globalisation should mean the sharing of cultures. But its main focus is a world economy, rather than separate national economies. The experience of globalisation over the last decade now allows us to make some judgements. Yes, the price of many manufactured articles has fallen as markets seek the cheapest labor for production. But this trend comes with other effects.
The architects of globalisation argue that international economic integration is essential if developing countries aspire to lift their young populations out of poverty. No nation has ever developed over the long term without trade. But 'trade on what terms?' is the question now being asked.
In Brazil, in your recent election, 62 million Brazilians have voted for a new leader in 'Lula' di Silva, who is seeking to lead Latin America in search of a new economic model. As you would know, di Silva rejects US proposals to cut tariffs on foreign products when the US puts protective tariffs on its own products.
Increasingly, globalisation is being regarded as a euphemism for Americanisation. Critics are questioning the impact of globalisation on its own citizens. Mark Hertsgaard, in 'The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World', writes "Our business and political elite are insisting that our model should be the world's model", yet the US economy is aggregating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. 90 per cent of all stock is owned by the richest 10 per cent of households. And one startling fact is that one man, Bill Gates, owns as much wealth as the bottom 40 per cent of Americans.
This might simply be an interesting curiosity for the rest of us if we were not affected so profoundly by the views and actions of the USA, in all matters. The USA is the first hyper-power in history. No country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the late Roman Empire.
As the world's dominant power, the US has a responsibility to deal with the economic and social causes that nurture recurrent violence in cultures throughout the world. It can do this by international cooperation (which we are seeing and experiencing in the current situation with Iraq) or it can, by virtue of its power, impose its will on all of us. We live in very interesting times. Clearly there are vocal nations who wish to retain control over their own destiny and handle events in their own way.
After the recent tragic events in Bali, where 90 Australians were killed, and as many more seriously injured by terrorist bombs, our Prime Minister John Howard, clearly moved by the events, was quick to differentiate Australians and their characteristics from Americans. He spoke of how, in crisis, "we are all mates together" (The Australian, 26-27 October, 2002).
He said, "We are as tough as tungsten, but we're also a soft and loving people."
Throughout our history, the language and the characteristics of mateship permeate Australian life. We greet strangers by saying "How are you mate?" "Sorry mate". "What can I do for you mate?" Our partner is our mate. Our children are our mates. Mateship is a cultural characteristic that has helped our social cohesion.
On the other hand, in the USA, the rights of the individual are enshrined. The emphasis is on the opportunities for the individual. The admiration of individual achievement is part of the culture in the USA. Australians don't like individuals to rise above the crowd - we cut tall poppies down.
The Australian Prime Minister gave a reasoned, measured response to the grief and anger the country felt, but when asked about President Bush's words of war, Howard said, "That's not an expression I'd use… Australians and Americans are very close, but there are some important differences. Sometimes public reactions and the reactions of leaders to these sorts of things illustrate some of these differences." (The Australian, 26-27 October, 2002)
In Brazil you now have a new leader with an independent voice, and you may have a unique opportunity, not just for economic reform, but for cultural advances. It is an opportunity to put your case for support of your own, uniquely Brazilian, children's programs. You can teach the government that programming is an important part of children's education. The media in one form or another reach all children. And you do not want to be teaching your children with American values. You have your own values. And you have the children of the world in large numbers. In Brazil alone, 48.7 million of school age. In the West, children now make up less than 20% of the population. Several Arab, Latin American and some Asian countries have populations where 70% are aged under 20 years. In Brazil, the figure is 50%.
It is obvious that a powerful way to preserve your cultural differences and values is through telling your stories to your children. This is clearly important to Americans, and it should be to all of us - to Brazilians, Latin Americans, Australians, Africans, Asians. The separate regions and separate countries have their own stories.
The trouble for most of us is that, in this mass media age and with international global marketing, the US domination of merchandised global popular culture leaves little space for other cultures to exist and express themselves. (Ziauddin Sadar, 'Meet the great Satan', The New Statesman, AFR, 6/9/02)
It is a tough task to discriminate when there are program hours to fill and many cheap American programs on offer.
And it is not only television content that is a challenge, it is a challenge for every form of communication. It is estimated that more information will be created over the next three years than has been made over the past 40,000 years (Nathan Cochrane, 'Managing the store', The Age, 5/11/02).
Yes, we know how to create information, and extraordinary communication systems, but the content is what matters in the end. Mere information and data is not good content. Brand-driven and merchandise-driven programming is not good content.
Quality content results from an education that values inquiry, creativity, ideas, a life of the mind.
We now need to have computers in schools. Life has moved in a direction where it is difficult to function in society if you are not computer-literate. But use of computers in itself appears to have had no effect on improving a pupil's educational performance. They may in fact have a damaging impact on pupils' maths., as an Israeli study has shown recently. ('New evidence on classroom computers and pupil learning', Joshua D. Angist & Vistor Lavy, Economic Journal, October 2002)
We need to process data and information to turn it into knowledge. Knowledge is about understanding things, placing them in context, knowing how to apply the lessons learned.
The paradox is, although there is more information available, people may be less well informed.
There are more films and television programs being made now than ever before, but fewer are worth watching.
Just to give you some idea of what I consider to be quality and diversity in children's programming, I'd like now to show you a few clips from the Australian Children's Television Foundation's production slate.
The first two clips are from films about social issues.
Captain Johnno deals with disability and multiculturalism - how a deaf boy and an Italian immigrant, both outsiders in society, find friendship.
The second - Boy Soldiers - tells the story of a conscientious objector who refuses to train when military training was made compulsory for boys as young as 14 in Australia, during World War 1.
Both these films were nominated for an Emmy. Captain Johnno won an Emmy.
When these films were made in Australia, 16 years ago, children's programming was thought to be either an adventure like Skippy (the kangaroo), or a US sit-com. like I Dream of Genie. Children saw nothing of their own social history in dramatic form. These films are still used by teachers in schools, along with novels based on the stories, and study guides written specially for teachers and children in Australian schools.
Lift Off, the next clip, is from a series for 6 - 9 year olds that worked with Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence framework. It was highly successful with its audience in Australia. The clip is of a 5 year old actor. Research shows young children strongly identify with their own age group in stories on television.
Then you will see some excerpts from Round the Twist, our most successful program. By the time we decided to make this series, the ACTF had established its credentials worldwide, and believed we should go for something that truly represented the larrikin style of Australian humor, based on stories that were demonstrably popular with children. What I did not expect, was that this show would be so popular with children all over the world - it was both critically acclaimed and financially successful.
Finally, I will show a clip from the one feature film the ACTF has produced - Yolngu Boy - which tells the story of three indigenous boys and the impact of white culture on their lives. To tell this story, we worked with three boys from the bush who had no acting experience or understanding of the process. It was a huge risk, but an important story to tell.
I want to congratulate you in Brazil and in Latin America for your support of the World Summit Movement, and for taking on the challenging task of hosting the 4th World Summit in 2004.
The issues to be tackled are very big issues:
A massive collaborative effort is needed, with governments, networks, funding agencies, all playing a role. And you as educators are important brokers for children, between the media and parents and governments.
You should not be remote from the decision-making about what media content Brazil's children will watch. You have a role and an opportunity at this time in Brazil's history. You can make a difference for children. Do get involved. Thank you.