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The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity

reviewed by Kim Wieczorek - 2002

coverTitle: The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity
Author(s): Carlos E. Cortes
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807739375, Pages: 224, Year: 2000
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Well before school educators ever began talking about multicultural education, the mass media were multicultural education--a chaotic, anarchic, semicoordinated, multivocal, usually unintended but nonetheless relentless flood of media textbooks on diversity, emanating from radios and television sets, inhabiting movie screens, and occupying the pages of newspapers and magazines (Cortés, 2000; pp. xv-xvi).

In The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity, Carlos Cortés argues that the "enveloping media multicultural curriculum guarantees that school educators do not have the power to decide if multicultural education will occur…school educators can only decide whether or not they will consciously participate and how they will participate in the inevitable process of teaching and learning about diversity" (p. xvi). Cortés offers analytical tools, historical grounding of scholarship, and integrated paradigms based in research and experience with media-related teaching to help readers begin to actively participate in teaching and learning of diversity from mass media textbooks and curriculum. The media textbooks Cortés investigates, from The Lion King and All In the Family to the coverage of Tiger Woods's victories in golf, make for a resonant text. Cortés encourages an attitude of discovery and inquiry for readers who surely have images and ideas in their lives that cannot be moored to school-based learning. Readers will continuously put the book down to reflect on their own responses to the many different media texts Cortés describes as part of a multi-faceted curriculum on diversity.

Cortés continuously examines "linguistic practices" and offers readers critical tools to analyze and discuss media teaching and learning, arguing that "certain traditional uses of language have actually impeded and distorted our understanding of the educational process writ large" (p. xviii). He broadens how words like media, mediamakers, media textbooks, media curriculum, and school educators can be read when intersections of school with societal curricula are investigated (pp. xviii-xx). Cortés also describes how he uses the term "stereotype" sparingly throughout his text on purpose. The overuse of some words related to diversity, including "stereotype" and "stereotyping", produces the effects of making such words little more than "wearying rhetoric or stultifying jargon" (p. 146). Cortés suggests characteristics of stereotypes by distinguishing them from and exploring their relationship to other basic concepts, used both in media and school-based textbooks: generalizations, labels, and depictions (pp. 146-161). Discussions of ideology related to media texts are most often framed in terms of "either/or" and "yes/no" arguments. Such framing provides a useless dichotomy though it "dominates because it taps into a consumer comfort zone, the American lust for simplistic, clear-cut dualisms or at least straight-line continua rather than the complex multiperspective contemplation of issues" (p. 120). Cortés offers a broader view of how language and terminology can be used to do a careful analysis of diversity-related teaching and learning with mass media and school-based texts.

Cortés analyzes different dimensions of the media multicultural curriculum, describing media creators and media content. Cortés reviews who creates the content of the media through larger productions in certain movements that can be reviewed not as conspiratorial, working to impose one group's ideologies, but rather as movements that align with national ideologies dominant at different times. Also reviewed are individual mediamakers who often center on specific themes that have dealt with issues of diversity, consciously trying to influence societal attitudes about diversity or toward specific ethnic groups. Mediamakers have also "consciously traded on antiethnic bigotry" (p. 37) in movies that portray different groups with negative and narrow depictions. Imposed limits on mediamakers when they produce media texts include internal constraints, audiences, pressure groups and ideological conflicts. Also described is the effect of commercialism, for "diversity makes it into the media curriculum primarily when mediamakers decide that diversity sells" (pp. 44-45). Cortés reviews multiple types of studies that have been conducted and that have reported on the content of media texts. He concludes that media-based learning about diversity is continuous, myriad, and omnipresent. Little else can be proved about what is learned from mass media products. What is criticized or made the object of commentary about media texts does not necessarily directly relate to what different people are learning from the media.

Cortés kept a journal of his own media consumption during one month, and relates what messages he learned about media learning possibilities. His journal suggests the "extensiveness, variety, and unpredictability" of the mass media's multicultural curriculum, and how the approach "can be used to reassess constantly the continuities and changes in the media multicultural curriculum" (p. 94). Assessing content however, whether through journaling or empirical studies, does not guarantee that particular learning occurs. In terms of the limits of content analysis of any form, Cortés argues that "the attempted categorical precision of content analysis may unwittingly misrepresent the messiness of media multicultural teaching and learning" (p. 124). Cortés offers "A Potential Impact Paradigm" (pp. 127-130), an interpretive framework for hypothesizing the potential multicultural learning impact of the mass media. Within this paradigm, "viewers tend to react to media textbooks about diverse groups and other diversity-related themes according to four basic teaching-learning scenarios: coincidence, conflict, marginalism, and novelty" (p. 127). These reactions range from accepting to rejecting media learning because of views and experiences already securely held, to the shaping of a large amount, or most everything an individual will know about a topic from media textbooks and curriculum. The use of this paradigm can help readers more effectively understand the potential learning from the media as part of a larger curriculum that teaches about diversity.

Cortés draws on the separate fields of media and school multicultural education scholarship to propose an integrated paradigm for media-related multicultural education. He identifies and assesses at least four basic patterns of school educator responses to the presence of the media multicultural curriculum: recognition, attention, exploration, and action-oriented investigation. These can be conceived in hierarchical order of intensity of engagement with the media, "from passive to transformative" (p. 136). Cortès identifies areas where individual school educators, schools, districts, or states can become involved in explicitly integrating the mass media into policies and practices: assessing one's own media multicultural learning; dealing with student multicultural learning; using the mass media as a curricular resource; developing student analytical thinking about media; professional development concerning the media; working with parents as multicultural coteachers with the mass media curriculum; working directly with the media; and combatting stereotypes and stereotyping (pp. 139-140). These areas include helping individuals and groups to become more media literate and analytical in thinking about and using the mass media as integrated multicultural curricula. Cortés's proposals for the school-media relationship provide a paradigm for a comprehensive, media-responsive approach to multicultural education.

Cortés examines the effects of the "Cyberspace Era", describing how cyberspace has the "basic mass media characteristic--one source transmitting and many sources receiving" (p. 162). But, unlike with most of traditional media, "in cyberspace the receivers constantly talk back" (p. 162). Cyberspace can be more democratic and more effective than other media in fostering both intergroup and intragroup dialogue though cyberspace "as democracy" has less to do with content and learning than with the process of creation with "an enormous expansion of mediamakers… or at least people who can add to media content" (p. 164). Cortés raises questions of access and how schools can participate when bringing cyberspace texts into mass media curriculum in schools.

Cortés helps readers begin to be media literate through multiple narratives, from observations of his two granddaughters' reactions to media texts like The Lion King to his historical scholarship and journaling, connecting mass media to school based teaching and learning about diversity. Cortés has written a text that is a tool, one that helps readers shape and examine the narratives they can tell and use to discuss their own learning and teaching about diversity, drawing upon the mass media as possible "rich sources of educational transformation" (p. 169). Cortés ends his book with a narrative about his one four year-old granddaughter's use of "racial categorizing and labeling" when she describes her friend and herself: "She's Black, I'm White." Cortés explains that it was bound to happen. His granddaughters had "merely taken that inevitable step from perceiving physical differences to discussing them within the historically developed, socially imbedded, media-disseminated American cultural tradition of racial categorization" (pp. 170-171). Cortés expresses that he and his family will do their part to make this new phase of his granddaughter's multicultural education constructive; he expresses the hope that the mass media and the schools will "do their part, too" (p. 171). His book offers readers ways to construct narratives and careful, comprehensive plans for "doing their part," using mass media in a comprehensive and imaginative curriculum that uses a wider world of textbooks to teach about diversity.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 133-136
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10731, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:09:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Kim Wieczorek
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    Kim Wieczorek is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. With Carl Grant (2000), she has published "Teacher education and knowledge in 'the knowledge society': The need for social moorings in our multicultural schools" in Teachers College Record, as well as "Best practices in multicultural education: Recommendations to school leaders" in W.G. Wraga & P.Hlebowitsh (Eds.), Research Review for School Leaders, Vol. III. With Carl Grant and Maureen Gillette (2000), she has published "Text materials and the intersections of race, class, gender and power" in Race, Gender, and Class. Current projects include research and writing about systems of reason within teacher education and investigation of the intersections of educational practices with other practices, including media production and performance.
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