Cultural Studies in the Undergraduate Program

Cultural Studies in the Undergraduate Program

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Cultural Studies in the Undergraduate Program

Any discussion of cultural studies must begin with an attempt to define culture. I say attempt because the word 'culture' is so steeped in historical, psychological and political meanings and counter-meanings it has become, in the jargon of literary theory, overdetermined, i.e., so full of meaning it threatens to become meaningless. So instead I will begin with a statement about art which I think goes to the heart of our conceptions of culture.

In 1973, Ray B. Browne--an acknowledged pioneer in the field of popular culture studies--wrote that "One of the significant new realizations is that there is no real distinction between 'elite' and 'popular' art, that all aesthetics are on one horizontal continuum ..." (PCE 2). While that may have been a "new" realization in 1973, I believe it was premature, because I think we could agree that even in 1995 there is probably not a single campus where it is generally accepted that such distinctions between high and low art do not exist. I would say the same prejudice still exists about what we mean by the word culture. For instance, in the supposedly sophisticated cyberdiscourse of the Internet, where dozens of discussion groups on cultural studies list hundreds of postings from thousands of cultural studies pioneers, still there persists an assumed distinction between the high and the low, only now it is referred to as the difference between the study of capital 'c' Culture and all other kinds. Ray B. Browne's optimism notwithstanding, apparently in the ensuing two decades we have merely traded the rhetoric of high and low art for that of upper and lowercase culture.

It is a persistent myth of most societies but particularly of American society that popular art and its attendant culture are somehow a fundamentally different "thing" than whatever it is we mean by high art and its culture. In fact, I would assert that the word culture itself still means for most Americans the opera, the symphony, museums--places and rituals associated with money and privilege. In other words, culture is a synonym for class--or rather, for high class. To counter that myth, cultural studies begins with the understanding that all citizens in a society both consume and produce culture; that there are no absolute distinctions to be made between upper and lowercase culture. To quote David Trend on this idea (and by the

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way, what better name for someone who studies popular culture than Trend), "One of the most pernicious myths that modernism foists on the children of working-class parents or people of color is the promise of escape from material hardship through the aesthetic transcendence of high culture ... In this scheme 'great art' is construed as an array of objects that exists beyond the lives and productive capabilities of ordinary people" (CP 5). I believe the academy shares responsibility for this perceived separation. To suggest that there is this thing called academic culture which is somehow hermetically sealed from mass culture--a myth which lives today in the phrase "the ivory tower"--is to perpetuate a myth of the academy as somehow distant, inescapably alienated from the "real" world; a myth which is deeply counter-productive to both our educational and institutional goals.

Though this attitude is anything but solely a product of forces in support of a conservative curriculum, it is part and parcel of the broader acceptance of a theoretical canon of concepts and texts which are timeless, their meaning supposedly transcendent of historical circumstance or subjective interpretation. However we feel about this view of "great works," perhaps we can admit that, at least on one level, it inevitably widens the already great distance between those narratives we would like to teach and the lives of most real people, including the students to whom we wish to teach them. This is a distance which cultural studies seeks to reduce, and in service of that aim it defines culture not as a static set of never-changing texts which have become cultural icons and rituals, but as the dynamic processes of everyday life and individual behavior. Culture exists in the interrelations between people, and as academics it would be unenlightened of us to ignore the vast majority of those interrelationships, to treat them as inferior, inconsequential and not worthy of our scholarly attention. Again, to quote Mr. Trend, "Whether we like it or not, the closest thing to a culture we hold in common is popular culture" (CP 5). Having said that, we must also recognize that "popularity" is only one of many yardsticks to be used in measuring the various aspects of culture. I believe it is most effective to think of culture as a vast collection of narratives, all of which shape our behavior as well as our expectations of the behavior of others.

If we begin to think of culture in terms of narrative, then how do we conceive what it is we do when we study those cultural narratives? What is cultural studies? What is its history, its own shaping narratives?

In looking for its American roots, certainly cultural studies could be traced to specific works like Vernon Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought (published in 1927), as well as larger social projects of the New Deal era, like the 1936 American Civilization Project at Harvard. We might even point to the founding of the American Studies Association in 1951 as an indicator of an increasing academic awareness of the importance of studies which focus on culture in a less restrictive sense. And at least some of this academic impetus could be traced to the work of various Brits, especially the concerns and methodologies in the social criticism of Richard Hoggart, F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams, whose work in the early 1960s focused on the seemingly impermeable boundary in their own country between high and low culture (that "pernicious" distinction which, according to Mr. Browne, hasn't existed in the more evolved colonies since 1973). But whereas in Britain this debate was immediately absorbed by the traditionally highly politicized and almost static standoff between the left and right, in the United States this new approach to the study of living cultural texts and practices managed to sometimes avoid getting hopelessly bogged down in questions of ideological purity, and to spawn instead some vital academic programs. The 1960s saw the work of folklorists and sociologists like Russel B. Nye, John G. Cawelti, Marshall Fishwick and our Ray Browne become increasingly an important component of curricular reform. Perhaps another historical milestone of academic acceptance would be Brown's founding of the Journal of Popular Culture in 1967. It also must be acknowledged that the techniques and even the vocabulary of cultural studies is deeply indebted to many other academic fields, such as feminist theory, ethnic studies, psychology and anthropology, and of course folk studies. But I believe it's also important to recognize that some of the interest in, even a certain component of the rhetoric of cultural studies owes a debt to the work of new (or perhaps we should use their own term "gonzo") journalists, like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. All of these influences, some traditionally academic, others much less traditional, have contributed to the interests and methodologies of modern cultural studies programs.

By 1973 (the year the split between high and low art died), there were more than 600 colleges and universities in this country which taught some form of popular culture course. A more recent survey (of 1991) places that figure nearer 1,000, with dozens of journals devoted to various cultural studies topics. In fact, in this year's (1995) MLA job listings, there are as many positions advertised for people to teach various forms of cultural studies as in other, more traditional areas, such as Modernism, Romanticism, etc.

However, even though it is clear that cultural studies is becoming an established academic discipline, that are still diverse understandings of what cultural studies is.
For instance, there are academicians who feel that culture is, like any other field, a collection of names, dates and events which students ought to memorize. I refer here to people like Allen Bloom and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., whose works The Closing of the American Mind and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, respectively, argue for a definition of culture as a relatively static set of facts; a sort of canon of cultural milestones and trademarks. The existence and popularity of their books and others like them demonstrates an anxiety that our students don't get enough of culture, whatever it is. I mention their works to aide my own definition of cultural studies because they manifestly represent what it is not--not, that is, for the majority of people doing work in this field, who resist the notion that cultural studies should be some additional load of facts to be added to standardized tests and graduation checklists. What Mr. Hirsch means by cultural literacy and what I mean are two very different things. In fact, it is exactly that sort of decontextualized facts-for-their-own-sake kind of education that cultural studies as I am portraying it seeks to supplant.

Cultural studies is less concerned with the knowledge content of various academic disciplines than with the forms with which those disciplines and society in general operate. Thus pedagogical practices, as well as their social relationships, are the stuff of cultural studies. I think of cultural studies as, to a certain extent, a metalanguage used to discuss the languages of not only the social practices which are sometimes called popular culture--films, television, advertising, fashion--and not only those social practices more commonly thought of as culture capital C--the theater, opera, art and classical music--but even those practices within the academic disciplines themselves, such as the pedagogy of math, physics, psychology, literature, etc. I see cultural studies as a way of asking ourselves questions about the narratives inherent in our pedagogical and social practices, questions it is important to ask because such practices are never "value free." To quote Edward Trend again: "If culture is the ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is useful to realize that such stories are never neutral, but are always constructed, delivered, and received in specific historical encounters." Cultural studies, is, he argues a "practice [which] involves the study, not merely of particular objects or classroom practices, but of the range circumstances in which cultural forms are produced and received" (CP 5). Thus cultural studies is the study of the cultural texts which construct the material and conceptual conditions of our lives, both within and without the academy.

What, then, do I mean by cultural texts? I think we can agree that, as meaning-producing entities, human beings invest everything they do, everything they make with meaning.
However, traditional educational schemes often draw a neat separation between the textualized meaning of books, and the contextualized meaning of all other cultural objects and behaviors. On the other hand, semiotics--the analytical tool of cultural studies--treats all potential sites of meaning as texts; texts to be read, and read closely, for what they tell us about their authors and their audiences. Some of you are no doubt familiar with the early history of semiotics in the works of linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss. Though I won't go into detail here and now about the principles of semiotics, I will mention two semiotic axioms which are absolutely essential to the work of cultural studies: 1) that all language is made up of signs which generate meaning only by referring to other signs; and, 2) that the relationship between signs and that which they signify is entirely and inescapably relative. What these two precepts suggest when taken in conjunction is that the meaning which we read from the association of a sign and its signifying concept is an arbitrary, socially constructed meaning, a meaning which is dependent on an extremely complex network of other arbitrary, socially constructed meanings. Just as there are no absolute, transcultural signs for objects and ideas, the meaning of those signs within any one culture is a product of countless associations of other signs within that culture. Certain associations are so deeply embedded in the culture, so historically transparent and widely accepted as self-evident that they become the culture's ideology, i.e., a set of beliefs which are no longer taken as a set of beliefs but as "common sense" or "the truth." It is a key strategy of cultural studies to recognize and then analyze these assumptions, or what we might call root metaphors, for what they tell us about the dynamics and values of the social narratives that comprise our culture.

And it is in cultural texts that we can often find the most explicit displays of those, as Roland Barthes called them, mythologies. To give you a better idea of the type of material to which I'm referring, I'd like to quote from Paul Smith and an essay about the use of what he calls Popular-Cultural-Commodity-Texts in teaching cultural studies:
Meaning is often already understood by students to reside within texts of a traditional kind (novels, poems, stories) but is not always recognized by them as a component of [general culture]. Students already tend to think of [cultural texts such as television, movies, advertisements, etc.] as texts which do not need to be analyzed; rather, they often seem self-evident or obvious, texts which, to adopt a distinction of Roland Barthes's, signal rather than signify. The first pedagogical task, then, can be conceived as the production of contradiction in and among students' views of the[se cultural texts], simply by treating [them] as meaningful and significant. The text, any text, delimits a particular field of meaning, displays internal contradictions, offers particular interpretative choices, alludes to given histories and circumstances.(PCS 34)
That is to say, students and educators as well think of meaning worth studying as residing in the pages of Hamlet, but not in the frames of most popular films. Yet certainly by now the success of film studies programs should have hinted to us that there are, in fact, some extremely interesting and useful things to say about films, at least, we might grudgingly admit, some films--like, for instance, Citizen Kane. But are we ready to expect semiotic rewards from examining "popular" films like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon?

Well, in an astoundingly prescient essay published in 1991 in the electronic journal Postmodern Culture, Phred Fiel analyzed the first two of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series, and found lurking within all four of them essentially the same film, a single narrative about white male frustration, rage, and paranoia; a discovery published years before the angry white male backlash of the 1994 mid-term elections. Roland Barthes once said that the most promising pedagogy would be that which shook "up the notion of the literary text and [made] adolescents understand that there is text everywhere" (CP Roland Barthes, quoted on p 69). While Fiel's use of these popular films as objects of serious academic analysis might "shake up" the traditional curricular thinker, his discovery of narratives in those texts, narratives that clearly resonated with a wider cultural mood, is something we must at the very least call good scholarship.

But there is more that the use of such cultural texts can do for us as teachers than simply reveal or reflect cultural moods and trends. To quote Smith again: "The second pedagogical task would concern the [cultural text's] production of social relations ... [which] address the commodity status of the text ... [and the] students' place in a pragmatic social relation to the text ..." (PCS 36). Which is to say, such texts automatically suggest questions about access and value; in other words, questions about the text's place in specific relationship to the students as participants in a culture of exchange. These are, after all, the sorts of texts with which they are surrounded. According to Mr. Trend, "Young people are alienated by the disparity between the type of literacies sanctioned in school and the literacies they practice in their daily lives" (CP 53). One of the aims of the study of cultural texts is to reduce that alienation, to use a literacy they already possess to build the other, more complicated literacies necessary for a liberal arts education.

Of course your reaction by now is: I am convinced, cultural studies is a godsend. So it might surprise you to hear that not all enlightened educators feel as you do.

As an example I will reach back to 1969 and the reaction of one Russel Kirk, a conservative columnist and social critic, who deployed what would become the two main thrusts of cultural studies criticism in his condemnation of the development of a program in popular culture at Bowling Green State University. At that time, Kirk's reaction to the whole concept of cultural studies was all too typical, and might be summarized as follows: cultural studies was, 1) intellectually vacuous, and 2) a waste of precious educational resources. He even suggested that popular culture programs were developed specifically to "pander" to student activists:
... what most rebellious students demand by way of university reform is not culture, but anti-culture ... Finding genuine humane studies and pure science too rigorous for his undisciplined and uninquisitive intellect, the student rebel shrieks 'Give Me Relevance!'--by which he means trivia and ephemera requiring no painful thought." (PCE 11)

For Kirk, all such early forms of cultural studies were in fact "anti-cultural boondoggles." You might criticize Mr. Kirk's place in my argument as that of a straw man, a pedagogical troglodyte whose knee-jerk resentment of curricular innovation has no relevance in the 1990s. But I believe we can recognize in Mr. Kirk's strident and near hysterical resistance to new curricula a very old complaint indeed, dating back as long as there have been institutions of learning and people who felt they must be defended against the intrusions of barbarians. (In fact, at one point Mr. Kirk explicitly likens these rebellious, lazy, anti-cultural students to Huns.) Mr. Kirk identifies Ray B. Browne (who began the program at Bowling Green) as a pioneer (or in his terms sapper) in the new field of popular culture, and writes that he understands Browne's students study menus, cigar bands and baseball cards. "Really and truly," he writes--as though his audience would think him mad for even suggesting such things. He finishes by stating that, hard as it may be to believe, Browne actually hopes his institution will one day offer a bachelor's degree in popular culture. What could be more insane! Of course, by now not only does Bowling Green State University offer such a degree, but so do some dozens of other colleges and universities, as well. And what would Mr. Kirk say of the schools which offer graduate degrees in this field? Probably that they had taken the study of trivia and ephemera to a new, "high" art.

Of course, Mr. Kirk's argument is based on a resilient cultural myth, one which equates the word popular with the word mediocre; one which teaches that there is a hard and fast distinction between high and low art, and that therefore it is self-evident that the study of menus ought to be restricted to restaurants. What would Mr. Kirk say, I wonder, to the contemporary use of the word 'menu' in computer technology and political rhetoric? Would he respond that all those who use the word outside the context of a restaurant are speaking nonsense? That there is nothing to be learned by examining the nuances of the word in these other contexts? By Mr. Kirk's reasoning, language is a dead thing without the capacity for change or growth; and culture--at least culture which Mr. Kirk would properly call culture, that is capital 'c' Culture--is something locked into various Great Works, like the crown jewels in a vault, to be paraded before the public only during the proper occasions and with adequate supervision.

Of course language is not a dead, static object, but a living, dynamic process. And culture is the context within which all language operates, within which all language "means." But what does it mean? Does cultural studies claim that a menu will tell us as much about the human condition as Hamlet? (Unless it is one of those really big menus--the ones without prices--probably not.) However, a moment's reflection reminds us that the commodity that the name/concept 'Hamlet' has become operates at least partially in the same commercial realm as that word 'menu' that is now so much a part of our technological as well as gastronomical reality; in other words, Hamlet as trope and menu as trope are both cultural texts, and therefore both are legitimate objects of cultural studies, not necessarily for what they tell us about adolescence and narcissism, but rather what our construction and circulation of those tropes tell us about how we conceive of choice, of the pressures and consequences of choosing, and how those thoughts become condensed, commodified and exchanged; how they become, in and of themselves, markers of cultural naratives.

Mr. Kirk is not a straw man and his criticisms are not antiquated because, unfortunately, he and his attacks live on in the resistance encountered by a series of curriculur innovations, from American studies to women's studies, and now multicultural programs. Always these attacks take one or both of the same two approaches adopted by Mr. Kirk, i.e., that such programs are not academically rigorous, and/or that they are a drain on scarce academic funds. Certainly the vast amount of fine scholarship that has come out of American and women's studies programs should by now have put the first critique to rest; and, given that most such programs have brought new students and new revenues into the academy, the second objection should also by now have died a well deserved death. But then I think such refutations would have failed to persuade Mr. Kirk just as they fail to persuade his progeny, precisely because I think Mr. Kirk and his latter-day allies never took either of these objections very seriously, but use them only to mask their real objection. And I think that real objection is that these new academic fields break down the tidy traditional categories by which the various disciplines were, well, disciplined.

Those who call themselves curricular conservatives believe that education's chief purpose is to achieve political and cultural unity, and they see programs which not only study diversity but encourage it as simply too chaotic. Such terms as "moral relativism" and "nihilistic anarchy" are all too frequently found in their critiques. Furthermore, just as conservative critics believe that education can somehow be apolitical, they believe the study of culture can somehow be acultural, that is, removed at some safe distance from the stuff of actual culture--stuff like cigar bands and baseball cards and, yes, even menus. For people like this--people like ex-NEH chair Lynn Cheney--who constantly appeal to the "wisdom of the ages," this is a curiously ahistorical argument. Were we to transport ourselves back to the late 1800s, we would no doubt find critics resisting the notion of teaching the relatively recent invention called "novels," criticizing the idea as faddish and unproven. After all, those arguing for a timeless canon of Great Novels forget that the novel itself was a form developed only in the 18th century (at least in its "popular" European incarnation) in response to the expansion of a literate middle class, the productive capacity of new printing processes, and especially a new sense of the importance of individuals and their stories in the overall cultural matrix called History. In other words, the birth and dispersion of novels was a cultural phenomenon not unlike, in its functions and processes, the birth and dispersion of the personal computer in the late 20th century; and both of these processes lead to revolutions in every aspect of the cultures in which they operated. If professors are above and beyond all else students of history, then it seems we ought at the very least to expect our tidy educational categories and techniques to be anything but timeless, and that we ought to be constantly on the lookout for new things to study and new ways to study them.

But perhaps the best illustration of the potential of cultural studies techniques would be a demonstration of the type of exercise I perform in every introductory course I teach, be it composition or creative writing or literature. I ask the students to bring in advertisements from magazines or newspapers. I encourage them to look for ads which seem to do most of their work through their graphic components, photographs, art work and the like. I've included here a typical example of the type of advertisements they bring into class, in this case an ad for AT&T.

Putting aside for the moment the prose of the ad, we might still immediately see the visual components in it as a text, and further as a text which is attempting to make a rhetorical argument. We might notice, for instance, the way the words "Men" and "Women" draw our attention, and further that these words are clearly associated with the silhouette of a bridge. Thus we understand the ad's topic is some sort of gap between the genders which, we can safely assume, AT&T is doing something to "bridge." We also cannot ignore the nearly ecstatic expression on the woman's face; an expression indicative, we are to take it, of the joy of crossing that bridge, and of course "gratitude" toward the builders of that bridge.

But to look even deeper, we might wonder at the woman's clothing; clearly it is meant to reference the flannel workshirts typically worn by male laborers; typical, that is, to their portrayal in other popular culture texts, like television and the movies. Are we meant to conclude from this that the woman actually participated in the labor of building this bridge? Or is she merely "in disguise," as it were? And is it the bridge that brings that smile to her face, or the clothes? We cannot be certain. But we can see clearly that the ad believes this bridge to be a solution to the gap between men and women it presupposes; and furthermore, that this solution is the result of labor which is male identified--even though it is a woman who is apparently most blessed by that labor.

We might then get to the level of reading the prose of the ad. "Men and Women are learning to speak the same language." That statement is an argument. It begins with the assumption that there is some essential gap between the genders--that which is represented by that smaller word 'and' sitting between them, like a low fence. It also assumes that we agree with AT&T that men and women do not currently or naturally speak that "same" language. It argues, then, that learning a language--the same language--is the solution to the gap. It is apparently a singular--and I mean that if every sense of the word--language which will accomplish this task, as it is called the language. But, given that there's only a woman pictured in the ad, are we to understand that she is the only one required to "learn" this language?

Were we then to go on and read the rest of the prose, we would discover that the ad's argument goes thus: the 'gap' between men and women is a result of poor translation from one side of this gap to the other, which is a result of not speaking often enough, which is the result of the sides not being "close" enough, which is finally the result of not having enough options through which to speak. Lack of choice, then, is the root problem. And, the ad concludes, AT&T provides so many "possibilities" for communication that a new "world" of choice is at hand.

This is of course the rhetoric of Edenic promise, that a new land awaits just over the horizon, a land of possibility and choice. And the evidence that is used to support, if you'll pardon the pun, this claim of bridge-building is ... well, is apparently the picture of the bridge itself. This ad assumes that in our culture bridges have authority, that merely to reference a standing bridge is to prove your point. Combined with whatever the emotion is we are meant to read on the woman's face, that is the sum total of the ad's application of evidence; an application which has at its heart a logical contradiction, because, upon a moment's reflection, we will begin to wonder what bridges logically have to do with options. If anything, bridges channel people into the same route, and are notoriously vulnerable to traffic jams. But it is only the ethos of the bridge the ad wishes to borrow, not its logic. We might take our analysis even further, and ask if the woman's body--aligned as it is with the bridge--is meant to be the site of the presumed communication renaissance; if we are to use her body as the bridge between the genders. You see the implications. And, I hope, the pedagogical possibilities.

What does this have to do with composition? Well, getting the students to realize how evidentiary appeals are often subliminal, interrelated, and even sometimes logically inconsistent is of course an integral component of teaching them to be critical in a broader sense, of their own arguments as well as those of others. But it also is a demonstration to them that argument is not something one finds only in Aristotle; that argument is a fundamental form of the rhetoric of their everyday lives; further that argument is something based on assumptions about what people believe to be "self-evident" truths; and even further, that it makes its appeals using narratives and figures which have historical and social resonance for its audience. In other words, it encourages them to think in terms of tropes, and to see that they are surrounded by such tropes, all of which serve in constructing their culture and even their own identity.

But is an introductory undergraduate class capable of such deep semiotic analysis? Most of the points I just discussed in relation to this advertisement were in fact raised by students in a composition class. I asked those students to write up a brief analysis of the ad in terms of its evidentiary appeals, and as this exercise is part of the unit on evidence, the students realize they are looking for instances in the ad of appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos (authority, logic and emotion). They not only immediately recognized the "hidden agenda" of the ads pictorial components, but they also instinctively understood those components to be commenting on--and, as we discovered, in contradiction with--the ad's prose. Freed to discuss this text with the same vocabulary and technique that they might discuss other components of their daily lives, the discussion was lively, creative, analytical, far-ranging, insightful, inclusive, and enlightening; everything, that is, that we wish all class discussions could be. And I should add that, after a few such exercises, it is usually a relatively simple leap to the more sophisticated vocabulary and techniques of deeper semiotic analyses. Once the principle of such analysis is clearly understood, the acquisition of a more academic methodology--that is to say the theory behind their practice--is typically quite painless, and often even invigorating. By semester's end I usually have a number of students come to me and express a sense that they are seeing these cultural texts with new eyes; some even complain that they can no longer read an advertisement and not immediately begin to deconstruct it, to which my response is
typically, "Congratulations."

This little exercise is the sort of thing that does not require a special cultural studies program within which to operate; it can be used in nearly any course I can imagine, for what discipline doesn't have its own set of tropes, visual cues and textual signs, all of which are based on historical narratives and cultural assumptions? I see no reason such exercises couldn't be common practice in everything from mathematics to nursing, using relatively simple visual compositions on cultural texts related to that field--even, perhaps, on the textbooks themselves.

One might ask, to what end? What point is there in a mathematics or nursing course in becoming a more acute cultural reader? The point of this exercise is not to make the students immediately switch their phone service to MCI, nor is it to make them leery of the next bridge they encounter. Rather, the point is to get them to realize that there is a narrative in the ad--in fact, a set of narratives--and that these narratives are encapsulated in the images and key words; and even further, that these tropes make assumptions about our experiences of and expectations about our culture. The point is to get them to pay attention to the texts with which they are surrounded. We have many courses whose goal is teaching students to be better analysts of what they read; but so often the texts with which those courses operate are so divorced from the texts of their daily lives--to repeat again that the literacy of the university seems to them completely alienated from the literacy of the world--that the analytical impulse dies a hasty death from underuse. On the other hand, if they can hone their analytical skills on nearly any text that comes to hand, in any context, then the entire world becomes in essence a lesson book upon which they can practice and perfect their skills. As David Trend points out, "Most educators recognize the importance of critical viewing skills, because, after all, an informed citizenry needs to be able to decode the manipulative language of advertising and news (not to mention political campaigning)" (CP 71). To become adept at semiotics would mean, it seems, to become adept at life, especially at life in a textual world fuller every day of information demanding attention and analysis. "A critical approach to learning asks one to question and reevaluate the legitimacy of knowledge forms, theoretical positions, ideological postures, and the presumed grounds on which arguments are based" (CP 3).

To realize that the texts of their life are the texts of their culture might even create in the student mind a greater identification with and interest in all art, including that traditionally called "high." A believe that art is what one finds in a museum but not in one's everyday life can lead to a sense for the average civilian that art--all art--is something that he or she can not only not produce, but a practice and set of objects in which their lives as political citizens have no fundamental stake. During the debate over censorship of NEA funded art projects, a poll found that, while 93% of Americans actually opposed arts censorship, 87% did not believe that there was anything they could or should do to demonstrate their opposition. We also have quite practical examples of the applied possibilities of cultural studies, in such programs as the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which provides national and regional workshops, and a forum in which its students can engage in active, living applications of what they learn. One might imagine from such examples cultural study program projects which result in students participating in extra-academic communities in ways which have lasting and positive social value. But the point of all these possibilities is that they blur the boundary between school and life, until perhaps the students come to understand that no such boundary really exists.

And yet there is another reason to be enthusiastic about cultural studies programs, and that is because they inherently further the aims of multicultural curricula. Cultural texts--magazine ads, films, television, music, even the clothes we wear--all make semiotic allusions to the heterogeneous American culture which has produced them; tracing their semiotic richness inevitably leads to discussion of issues like race, glass, gender and ethnicity. While works of literature are full of narratives about the place of race, class, gender and ethnicity in our society, their language is often an impenetrable barrier for some students. However, many pop culture texts are quite explicit in their use and manipulation of tropes which refer to these issues; thus race, class, gender and ethnicity become more than abstract academic labels which refer to vague intellectual syntheses of character, plot, motivation and historical context; they become the figures, colors, geometry and sheer textuality of the cultural material under study. And then, with a foundation of such terms firmly metaphorized for them, the application of those concepts as analytical categories to the literature becomes less an exercise in exchanging one set of unfamiliar language for another, and more an extension of analogs with which they feel comfortable and competent. Also, once a confidence in analyzing visual cues is established, the class is free to examine texts from other cultures. By studying things we take for granted about other cultures we gain a better understanding of our stereotypes about them, and hopefully gain the insight necessary to transcend those stereotypes.

Cultural studies seeks to create an educational environment where diversity and skepticism are encouraged rather than suppressed. But beyond merely turning out skeptical consumers, I believe such practices turn out students in the broadest and hopefully longest-lived sense of the word; students who do not believe that learning must be limited to a particular place and point in their lives, students for whom all the world becomes a classroom.


Currents of Warm Life: Popular Culture in American Higher Education, eds. Mark Gordon and Jack Nachbar, Bowling Green University Popular Press, Bowling green, OH, 1980.

Gans, Herbert J., Popular Culture and High Culture, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1974.

Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, eds Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, The Free Press, New York, 1957.

New Dimensions in Popular Culture, ed. Russel B. Nye, Bowling green U Popular Press, Bowling Green, OH 1972.

Philosophy, Rhetoric, Literary Criticism: (Inter)views, ed. by Gary A. Olson, Southern Illinois U. Press, Carbondale IL 1994.

Popular Culture and Curricula, ed. Ray B. Browne, Bowling Green U Popular Press, Bowling Green, OH 1970.

Popular Culture and the Expanding Consciousness, ed. Ray B. Browne, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1973.

Popular Culture, Schooling, and Everyday Life, Henry A. Giroux, Roger I. Simon et al, Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Granby, MA 1989.

Reconceptualizing School-based Curriculum Development, Colin Marsh et al, The Falmer Press, New York, 1990.

Theory/Pedagogy/Politics: Texts for Change, eds. Donald Morton and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, U. of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1991.

Trend, David, Cultural Pedagogy: Art/Education/Politics, Bergin & Garvey, New York, 1992.
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