Seanad debates

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

12:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the members of staff for having the patience to stay here. I wish to raise the issue of the need for the Minister for Education and Science to comment on the importance of media studies in ensuring that students who are exposed to historical events spun by media channels with their own agendas on a 24 hour basis are helped evaluate what they hear in a critical manner. This sounds quite convoluted but I could not find a way to put it in less convoluted terms. I will briefly explain my point and I hope it will reach the staff of the Department of Education and Science, though I appreciate the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. I do not mean to patronise the Minister of State when I say that he, of all people, will understand where I am coming from.

I have completed a report on the teaching of history in conflict and post-conflict areas; I spent a year and a half on the project, which got the full endorsement of the Council of Europe last Friday. The clearest point I came across was the fact that in former times, particularly in the Soviet era, there was a single truth in history. Teachers were told what to teach in the first five minutes of class and in the next 20 minutes; in the last five minutes they were told to reinforce what was covered at the beginning. History was seen as a truth to be dispensed.

The advent of news broadcasters such as BBC World Service, CNN, Fox News, TV5 Monde and many others, including our national broadcasters and national broadcasters around the world, means we now live permanently in historic times. To use a non-political event, we have lived through the death of Michael Jackson but most news items relate to politics, such as events in Iran, Iraq and conflicts around the world. These events are broadcast simultaneously into our houses as they happen, often merely to fill in time. The matter of Michael Jackson's death has now taken over the airwaves; people want to know how he died, who will take custody of the children, where his money will go and so on. This will keep the 24 hour news channels busy for a considerable period.

My point is that a gap has grown between the Soviet notion of a single truth and the various truths offered by different media outlets today. In conflict and post-conflict areas people need to engage with something other than a single truth. Every person has his or her own version of the truth; there are many perspectives on every situation. We should encourage people to explore the history taught to them and not necessarily accept a single version as the truth. It is very important children are given the chance to do media studies so they understand that a certain person's view of a particular event is coloured by where that person comes from and what is his or her agenda. In this way we will develop a more critical and analytical student who will become much more employable and may even become an employer. In all cases of conflict, including that on the island of Ireland, there is a need for more bright, intelligent, critical and analytical thinkers who can see through what they are told and recognise that there other agendas.

Places that have come out of conflict usually have to address economic as well as political problems. Tonight is not the time to go into the detail of the report. Instead, I ask the Department of Education and Science if it is aware that children are exposed to more and more media, such as the Internet, which bombard them with information and have agendas. One form of media will have a different agenda from another and young people should be given the skills to discern. As Marc Bloch said: "History is like a knife - it can kill or cut meat". The media can help to decide whether the knife is used as a weapon or as a useful tool.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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At this time of the evening I find it hard to resist the temptation to go a little off script. My last article in The Irish Times in June 2006 was devoted to considering Pontius Pilate's question "What is truth?" and whether relativism was truth or whether there was any such thing as absolute truth. I also commented on the paradox of politicians in promoting objectivity when much of our life is taken up with promoting a particular political agenda. The reference to the Soviet Union reminds me of the Soviet joke about history: "While the future is certain the past may be unpredictable".

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Media education is a specific strand unit within the social, personal and health education programme for all primary school pupils. Through this a child in the infant classes begins to learn that he or she receives information through a variety of different sources and begins to distinguish between advertisements and programmes and discuss characters and their appealing traits. By sixth class pupils develop an understanding of how information is conveyed, what may be deliberately excluded, the role of bias and the different messages promoted in advertising. The curriculum is designed to promote an increasingly critical and discerning attitude to advertising and media, their purposes and the messages they promote. This goes hand in hand with the strand unit on making decisions, so that children learn to examine critically the influences on their decision making and the consequences and processes involved.

While media studies is not a specific subject at second level, the skills of interpretation and analysis, the use of language in different contexts and genres and the influences on decision making are covered within the existing curricula and allow scope for exploring issues related to the media. For example, in junior certificate English students are required to think, respond and communicate in everyday contexts, including a diary, a journal, a radio programme, video film, drama, poem, essay etc. They develop a critical consciousness with regard to all language use and learn to focus on the choice of words and the reasons for and effects of these particular choices of words. The ways in which this is achieved include the introduction of students to the skills of reading, viewing and listening to a range of literary and media genres.

While the syllabus provides teachers with the freedom to choose their own texts and materials, they are expected to include print and media material. The guidelines for teachers include a unit on media studies, which encourages students to think and talk about the media as products and processes and to explore both their pervasiveness and persuasiveness.

The skills acquired in junior cycle are built on in senior cycle English where the term "language" includes verbal and visual forms of communication, including the role of media, film and theatre. The aims of the curriculum include developing students' powers of discrimination and interpretative abilities in regard to these media. Engaging with fiction, drama, essay, poetry and film in an imaginative, responsive and critical manner forms part of the approach.

In junior certificate history the syllabus aims to give students the skills to be able to examine critically a variety of types of historical sources, to distinguish between fact and opinion and to detect deficiencies such as gaps, inconsistencies and bias. As part of the leaving certificate history syllabus, students participate in a documents-based study and a research study. The emphasis is on the development of historical investigation skills and historical thinking, using evidence, and the need to look at history from different perspectives and as a dynamic process. The development of these critical and investigative skills can be transferred into many other areas of the curriculum and beyond.

The skills of information processing, analysis and critical evaluation are also developed through the action project within civic, social and political education, CSPE, which is compulsory in junior cycle. CSPE aims to equip students with the skills and understanding of processes which enable them to see, decide, judge and act. They should be better prepared for living in a world where traditional structures and values are being challenged, and where they are being confronted with conflicting interests and constant questioning.

Within social, personal and health education, a mandatory subject at junior cycle, influences and decisions is a specific module which is covered over the three-year programme. This includes helping students understand the role of the media and the impact of social mores in the wider community on their decisions. In the transition year programme media studies is among the range of flexible options which can be taken by students. Overall, within our second level curricula, there is a key emphasis on the development of skills in research, data gathering, analysis, evaluation and critical reflection which are important elements of effective learning.

I am confident the knowledge and skills acquired by our young people in our education system will assist them in processing, interpreting and critically evaluating the varied sources and forms of information in the media. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State and his officials. They seem to have a very good grasp of what I was asking about. The Minister of State always adds a personal touch which is relevant to the issue.