I want media literacy … and more. One response to danah boyd
The technology scientist danah boyd recently gave a keynote speech on the topic of media literacy at SXSW Edu 2018. Her main argument was (in her words): “If we are not careful, media literacy and critical thinking will be used as an authority over epistemology”. Many scholars have opposed their speech, and Boyd wrote this answer for them. Ioanna Noula, Visiting Research Fellow at the LSE Department of Media and Communications and education expert, outlines her take on the issue and explains why she thinks Boyd is wrong.
With her most recent keynote at SXSW Edu 2018, Danah Boyd sparked a lively debate in which she strongly questioned the power of media literacy to strengthen the individual’s ability to act and to combat the asymmetries of the media ecosystem that undermine democratic life. Her argument about the inadequacy of media literacy to empower young people, and her claim that media literacy and critical thinking might actually make people more vulnerable to media manipulation practices, was particularly provocative for media literacy advocates who were quick to respond to this criticism by providing evidence of success in the Education area and critical thinking insights.
In her response to the criticism, Boyd insisted on her criticism of critical thinking and said, “If we are not careful, media literacy and critical thinking will be used as an authority over epistemology”. What I find particularly bizarre is the fact that Boyd, although critical thinking is at the center of her argument, does not provide a clear explanation of what she means by critical thinking. This omission, together with the lack of references to examples of media literacy pedagogy and practice, indicate a lack of sound understanding of contemporary realities in education. It appears to follow a monolithic interpretation of critical thinking as capabilities of formal and informal logic that apparently draws on the tradition of positivism that has shaped prevalent definitions of critical thinking. Positivist approaches combine critical thinking with the ability to evaluate information, identify sources and / or assess their reliability and credibility and rationally determine truth, fallacy or falsification.
Critical thinking. Miss the point?
Apparently, Boyd associates critical thinking with human disposition or the learned ability to question anything. She blames formal education for sowing doubts in the thinking of students, and argues that it is this disposition that exploits the media to manipulate the public. This argument contradicts her claim that critical thinking is the predominant educational approach in schools and her blanket rejection of the concept of critical educational research and theory, which argues that critical thinking and its educational application in educational research remain widely debated topics, and a question for educational practice. Boyd fails to emphasize the crucial point that critical thinking has become a multifaceted and rather misused term in the curriculum, and that critical thinking has different meanings for different educational theorists and practitioners. These approaches to critical thinking range from narrow logistical understandings (critical thinking as an “inference and evaluation feature of logical analysis”) to emancipatory perspectives from critical theory (critical thinking as the ability to decipher social inequalities, class struggle and power relations).
Proponents of critical pedagogy – a movement on the fringes of educational theory – argue that the prevailing rational approach to critical thinking is an already perverted version of the concept. Their view is that just focusing on assessment and logical decision-making undermines the mission of education to empower students and create societal change. Henry Giroux argues that critical thinking has been widely misused to obscure the evolution of prevailing ideologies. On the contrary, Critical Pedagogues advocate that critical thinking should encourage students to deal reflexively, deliberatively and relationally with their living environment so that they can explore the ambiguities and moral driving forces of human action.
In her reaction to critical reactions from educational scholars and experts like Renee Hobbs, boyd tries to defend her thesis, but contradicts her original reasoning. In her original speech, Boyd argues that critical thinking consists in the mere defense of epistemological viewpoints. However, her allusion to the possibility and benefits of “cognitive separation” that would allow individuals to appreciate facts rather than misinformation is an indication of their own positivistic approach to critical thinking. At the same time, their suggestion implies that people should not ask about the intentions behind messages, the irrelevance of ethics in their reasoning, and further obscures the role of power and self-interest as drivers of human behavior that create inequalities and dominate corporations. It should be noted that the lack of curiosity is characteristic of many competency-based media literacy approaches.
What about education?
Revealing her position on the socio-political role of education and its potential to address the problem of ‘fake news’, Boyd explains: “When I try to unravel the threads to actually address the problem of so-called ‘fake news’, always end in two places: 1) dismantling financialized capitalism (which is also the root of some of the most difficult dynamics of tech companies); 2) re-assembling the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people to one another. But neither are recommendations for educators. “
I can no longer agree with her that the current socio-political reality makes up the largest part of the “fake news” challenge. However, Boyd’s assertion above is that social change does not fall within the purview of education, and I am not sure that many educational theorists and practitioners would agree with this view. Their approach collides not only with critical approaches to the sociology of education, but also with most of the current educational theories that view schools as an apparatus of social reproduction.
At this point I would like to draw your attention to the theory of critical pedagogy, which most clearly emphasizes the role of education in social change and also places critical thinking at the center of the development of self-confidence. Indeed, critical thinking is valued as the most important enabler of social change. Critical pedagogy locates the origins of critical thinking in pedagogical relationships and argues that critical thinking begins with the students’ recognition of oppressive relationships and their own place in social structures. This emphasis on repression provides an answer to Boyd’s concerns about gaslighting through education.
By explaining critical pedagogy to my theoretical and epistemological standpoint, I may perhaps confirm Boyd’s main argument that critical thinking is a battle of epistemology. However, one of the basic tenets of critical pedagogy is that education and critical thinking should aim to encourage self-reflection and self-awareness. This process is designed to enable students to acknowledge, understand, and contextualize their own epistemological biases that boyd has rejected.
Doubt and criticism
It seems that Boyd’s failure to theorize the concept of critical thinking undermines the current debate about media literacy and obscures the ideological issues at stake. Boyd’s argument on the dangers of media literacy is based on a nuanced equation of critical thinking with the elements of doubt and criticism. It is true that like the notion of empowerment, doubt and criticism have been co-opted and distorted in the interests of commercial and political agendas, including radicalization. Doubt and criticism can be dangerous when introduced as standalone skills and cultivated in competitive classrooms that support the sociocultural premise of neoliberalism. Doubt and criticism can be poisonous when driven by arrogance and strong loyalties. They can be groundbreaking when used in a spirit of open-mindedness and humility that can be cultivated in an inclusive and participatory educational setting. Doubt and criticism should be values and actions that proceed from dialogue and serve social justice. To this end, they should be recognized, debated and equally checked for their purpose in a particular context, but they should always be recognized as indispensable for educational processes aimed at challenging the status quo.
This article represents the views of the author and does not represent the position of the blog of the LSE Media Policy Project or the London School of Economics and Political Science.