John Sivert was surprised recently when his 7-year-old daughter, Laura, returned home from her second-grade class at the Fulton School in Minneapolis and announced, "You shouldn't accept everything you see on television commercials as truth."
But Mr. Sivert should not have wondered at his child's precociousness. Like all public school students in Minneapolis, she is learning to be "media literate."
Long the bane of teachers who denounced its hypnotic allure and saw it competing with books for children's time, television is slowly but surely entering American classrooms as a subject.
In courses that bear the unwieldy names "Media Literacy," "Visual Literacy" or "Critical Viewing," students from kindergarten through high school, from Oakland, Calif. to Norman, Okla., are learning to analyze television and the other media that pervade their lives.
Although Baltimore area schools touch on media literacy iEnglish and social studies classes, they have been slow to create full-blown courses on the subject. Among the exceptions, Carroll County offers high school juniors and seniors a one-semester elective on "English and the Mass Media," which examines the function of the media and the influence it has on the consumer. And Baltimore County is developing a pilot course on how media images influence American lives, to be introduced next fall at Loch Raven High School.
Students across the country are learning to distinguish between political commercials and news stories, writing their own TV scripts and reviews, even studying how television programs are aimed at different demographic groups.
Advocates argue that media literacy courses help children, who watch television at home and at school anyway, understand that everything they see is not true. Moreover, these educators contend that the courses are another way of reaching students who are bored by traditional methods of teaching.
A. C. Nielsen Co. says American children watch an average of four hours of TV at home each day. In addition, by dangling the lure of free video equipment, Whittle Communications, a Tennessee marketing and media company, says it has persuaded 5,761 schools in 45 states to show its daily, advertiser-sponsored news programs in their classrooms.
But many educators believe media literacy is merely a fad that will take time away from teaching more important subjects. Even Bill Honig,
California's superintendent of education, who believes children should be taught about "propaganda techniques," shies away from recommending a media literacy requirement.
"We're still struggling through math, history and science," he said.
Most media literacy courses originated as TV-production classes when schools, with government aid or through negotiations with local cable TV companies, were given video cameras and other equipment.
But many school districts were not content just to teach students how to produce programs and began showing their students how to "read" TV and other communications media.
American schools are following the lead of several other countries. Since 1986, all students from the seventh through the 12th grades in Ontario, Canada, have been required to study the conventions and messages of television. This year, media studies became a required part of the national curriculum in Britain.
One common thread runs through the new media literacy programs: All were created in response to specific local needs. In Minneapolis, a teachers' contract granting elementary school teachers daily preparation periods away from class led to the hiring of media specialists to keep children occupied and, later, to a formal curriculum, said Lyn Lacy, an elementary school media specialist there.
Today, she said, students are taught the differences between news reports, editorials and commercials in the first and second grades. The school system's media curriculum, adopted in 1987, also calls for fourth, fifth and sixth graders to study how color, focus and camera angle influence the appeal of television messages, and how the length of a presentation and the type of information included can distort a viewer's understanding of an event.
In several cities, including New York and Washington, media studies are taught at special public high schools, which combine production classes with media literacy courses.
With support from the Scripps-Howard Foundation, Cincinnati, Ohio, opened a High School for the Communication Professions in September 1989. The school's aim is to teach professional skills in print journalism, television news, advertising and public relations and photography. But it is also integrating media studies into other parts of the curriculum, including seminars on
"In our first seminar," said Jene M. Galvin, the school's dean, "we are going to pair the Pulitzer-Prize-winning news photo of the South Vietnamese general, with his arm outstretched, shooting the suspected Viet Cong guy, with another photo of a homeless man from Cincinnati, a 'bum,' who was killed under a bridge.
"That picture never ran," he continued. "The editor of the local paper said no. But the Vietnam picture, as we all know, ran worldwide. Both are violent; both have blood and gore. The kids will be challenged to analyze a core question, about why one ran and the other didn't."
In Oakland, educators are looking to media studies as a way of keeping potential dropouts in school. In 1985, the district started a "media academy" at the John C. Fremont High School, which combines vocational training in print and broadcast journalism with classes that use the media as an avenue to teach basic skills.
In their language-arts classes, for example, sophomores write and videotape their own commercials to help teach writing and speaking.
"You base it on what they know, and these kids know commercials," said Steve O'Donoghue, the academy's director. "Having to sell something is a real good way to develop verbal skills. They have to be real specific about the language they use and the images they're portraying.
"We also want them to be conscious that this is an artifice, that it's a skill you learn, not magic, and that you don't have to believe everything you hear or see."
Sixty-six of the 70 students in its first two classes, in 1989 and 1990, graduated from the academy, and the remaining four received their equivalency diplomas, Mr. O'Donoghue said.
Media literacy education is not being welcomed by all. Many educators see media literacy courses as a capitulation to popular tastes that steals valuable time from teaching literature and other important subjects.
"Do we teach it instead of or in addition to books and literature?" asked Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration who now teaches education at Vanderbilt University. "If it's in addition, then we need to add to the time schools have. If it's instead of, what are we displacing? Shakespeare or Dickens?"
Mr. Finn went on: "I don't object to this as part of the mission of schools. I just have a hesitancy to replacing other important content."