ESSAY

New media & the liberal arts

Print edition : January 28, 2022

A schoolgirl using a laptop for lessons. The coronavirus outbreak has steeply pushed up the use of online resources for education in a time when students are anyway exposed to a surfeit of information on social and new media. The challenge lies in processing and assessing that information, and this is made worse by the weakening of liberal arts education. Photo: Getty Images

The liberal arts, viewed as important to life and life values and crucial to the making of cultures and civilisations, are essentially ‘subjective’ disciplines in contrast to other pursuits of learning that are termed as ‘professional’ in the academia. Here, a class in progress in Chennai’s Presidency College. Photo: RAGU R.

Social/new media, in their formidable outreach and ability to influence all aspects of life, tend to supplant earlier disciplinary domains, including the liberal arts. The challenge today is to creatively harness the power of the social/new media in the light of the earlier wisdom.

Here is a provocative question: Will the rise of the all-pervasive social/new media ring the death knell of the liberal arts and the human sciences?

By liberal arts, we understand basically “curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum”.1

Liberal arts, in most quarters, include the humanities and social sciences: clusters of academic disciplines such as language and literature, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, education, psychology, economics, political science, international relations, arts, aesthetics, art history, and so on. Viewed as important to life and life values, crucial to the making of cultures and civilisations the world over, these are essentially the ‘subjective’ disciplines in contrast to other pursuits of learning that are termed as ‘professional’ in the academia. Matthew Arnold’s suggestion that culture involves the all-sided development of human2 nature still holds true in this context, although his views have been seen as elitist and exclusive by later generations of British critics including Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton.

Social media may be defined as “a computer-based technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information through the building of virtual networks and communities”.3 Likewise, new media, suggest “any media—from newspaper articles and blogs to music and podcasts—that are delivered digitally. From a website or email to mobile phones and streaming apps, any Internet-related form of communication can be considered new media”. For my purpose here, I use the two terms interchangeably.

Liberal arts under siege

The problem lies in the fact that social/new media no longer act as a means and mode of communication/mediation in the contemporary cyber world; in their formidable outreach and ability to influence all aspects of life, they tend to supplant, in many cases, earlier disciplinary domains, including the liberal arts, that have historically enjoyed respect and credibility by the academy, and are at present in a beleaguered position.

Social media today not merely have an instrumental value, as a means of democratising the gathering of information; they have become claimant to an independent body of knowledge. By talking about the inherent dangers of social media as a fix-all panacea, I do not wish to paint them in dark colours, or recall the question of the asymmetry, latent in such media, in terms of class, caste, gender, and so on. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain dominant drives in the new media that may not sit well with the spirit and practice of the liberal arts, especially when used without sufficient care. There are reasons for this disquiet in many quarters that cannot be rejected out of hand. Indeed, recent research in this field by critics like Ruian Gao and others (2019)4 has drawn our attention to the fundamental weaknesses of the new media.

Also read: Market, Morals and the Media

Social media tend to create instant messages; they generate hypnotic effects in the electronic/digital domains. Acquisition of information is quick and instantaneous. Barriers of space that have traditionally thwarted learning among vast sections of the student populations, especially from the underprivileged background, are quickly broken down; learning becomes more accessible, supposedly more democratic.

The real problem here is not so much the access to the platforms and the electronic media, as much as the manner of the acquisition of knowledge. Thanks to an overload of information, and a barrage of messages, there is insufficient time with increasingly limited attention span, to fathom and search for the meaning behind an information overload. The result often is homogenised thought, ideas and ideologies in a unilinear manner through easy-to-comprehend capsules and packages offered by digital educators/mediums. There is often a façade of learning. The Socratic method of ‘know thy self’, held sacrosanct for long, is not easy to realise in such a pedagogic scenario.

Thought control

Consequently, the distinctions between information, knowledge and wisdom that T. S. Eliot had memorably spoken of, become a casualty in such schemes of things. Attention to detail and specificity, which takes us in the direction of nuanced conclusions in academic inquiries, becomes that much harder to achieve. Reference points, more often than not, get blurred or are glossed over.

We are propelled towards sweeping generalisations and catchy sound bites that are the hallmark of contemporary television and mass media. The Orwellian prophecy of thought control in the era of the state and corporate supremacy seems to have come true.

It is the liberal arts that have traditionally championed freedom and stood as the bulwark against centralised thinking and forms of illiberalism. All authoritarian states, therefore, are against them. We need to, consequently, erect structures, and an eco-system, that supplement and strengthen the liberal arts, and not supplant them. We must urgently try and come up with creative answers that can effectively harness the power of the digital media for the greatest good of the greatest number of people in all societies. The current approach is to market a one-size-fits-all approach as the panacea of learning across the world. This must change.

Also read: Media made to order

It may be argued that social media has played a vital role in campaigns dealing with climate change to Arab Spring. However, recent events involving tech-giants like the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in promoting counter-revolutions and regressive agenda, in various trouble spots, underscore legitimate concerns voiced here. There are serious privacy and data protection issues that the tech-giants need to resolve in a transparent manner. At the same time, counter arguments demonstrate the potential of the new media for strengthening political communication.5 Critics like Jay Blumer and Michael Gurevitch contend that the new interactive media have a “vulnerable potential” to enhance public communications and enrich democracy, which can be realised only through appropriate policy support and imaginative institution building.6

Thus, what we witness is not a simple battle between tradition and modernity, between older and the newer bodies/modes of knowledge. Today the mass appeal of the social media is phenomenal; it encompasses the entire gamut of our life. We need to therefore take a more discerning and nuanced look and examine the contours of the emerging epistemology that renders the earlier crisis of the humanities look rather pale in comparison. We may do well to look at the crisis where it is manifest most conspicuously today, namely in the classroom.

Education for a technocracy

It has been a truism for some time that innovations in the field of learning is best served by the introduction of information and communication technology (ICT) and smart classrooms that provide an ideal learning environment for students in the globalised world. Technology is viewed essentially as an aid, a facilitator, for preparing an efficient workforce of technocrats and skilled managers of what the English critic F.R. Leavis described in his 1930 work Mass Civilization and Minority Culture as the “technologico-Benthamite” society, with a premium on business, industry, media, and the corporate world.7

In this top-down model, the liberal arts and the human sciences are urged by the state and private players to play a subordinate role. And thus, not English literature, but communicative English, not history, but tourism, not psychology, but medical/ clinical psychology and counselling, it is argued, ought to be the preferred choices and skill sets for the learners, including in the Choice-based Credit System. The situation in India today reflects the worldwide decline in and downsizing of the humanities, along with the classic liberal arts universities, honourable exceptions apart.

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There are other areas where the social/new media have had a direct bearing and influence. For instance, media and publishing houses increasingly worry about dwindling sales in an era dominated by the social media. While the future of the traditional print media is a genuine concern that must be squarely faced, deeper and more profound questions, signalled earlier, that are pedagogic in nature vis-a-vis the liberal arts, seem to have escaped our attention.

What is the future of traditional learning of the liberal arts, given the mounting challenges of social media? What factors indeed seem to dictate the manner in which the social media have changed our view of the past?

The author-critic Jason Steinhauer answers these questions citing an enormously popular televised programme: the YouTube video concerned dealt with slavery as the single-most important cause of the Civil War in America. Through a deft analysis of this programme, he shows how social media can create the desired space and spectacle for viewership in a carefully crafted manner, designed to command the attention of millions of viewers. He writes:

“How history online comes to our attention, then, has little to do with the accuracy of the information…Instead, the prevailing factors that bring online history content to our attention are algorithms, social networks, how the content is framed, its relevance to the news cycle, politics, commercial motivations, power dynamics, misinformation and disinformation campaigns, and our own perceptions of history and its role in society. Content does not rise to the top of the news feed due to its scholarly or factual merits. Political agendas and commercial agendas are almost always at play, the social Web privileging the attributes of a piece of content more than its veracity or accuracy.”8

It would be clear from the above that the World Wide Web, YouTube and other digital platforms help create a body of knowledge that parallels, and often rivals, the efforts of traditional disciplines like history. Here, as well as in the earlier manner of historiography, the point of view of the historian, and the teacher in the classroom, is replaced by that of the videographer, the cameraperson, the media planner and the strategist through the angle of vision and the ideological predilections offered.

Steinhauer puts it aptly:

“Why does this matter? Because today there are millions of history videos, history blogs, history memes, history podcasts, history social media accounts and historically-informed news articles on the Web competing for our attention, advancing political and commercial agendas, and actively re-shaping what we know about the past. Some content goes viral; other content does not. Some amasses millions of views; some is barely seen. Some are accurate; some are not. Some are created by professional historians and informed by scholarship; others are made by journalists, history enthusiasts, teenagers, hobbyists, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and foreign disinformation agents. It can often be difficult to determine which content is created by whom.”

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He could not be more correct. Television and the digital platforms today virulently promote partisan, political warfare for the TRP and viewership ratings. As the article “How the media encourages and sustains political warfare” tells us:

“The thesis of ‘The War of Words’ is simple and, in our view, holds up today: Political warfare is ubiquitous, unrelenting and inevitable. News coverage and commentary are frequently biased, whether journalists and readers are aware of it or not. And all media coverage, therefore, demands careful scrutiny.”9

We need to dig deeper, Steinhauer says in conclusion, “to reveal what agendas are at work, what tactics are used to achieve visibility, how the platforms dictate what pasts we encounter and which we never see, and how Web users can be better consumers of historical information online.”

Conclusion

Social media/ new media have come of age in the globalised world today. Sweeping, powerful and all encompassing, they have played a transformative role in the manner in which we understand and apprehend the reality. They have generated legitimate concerns as well.

In their preference for easy-to-digest snippets/modules and mesmerising sound bites, and backed by the ubiquitous state and the corporates, the new media radically depart from their earlier counterparts, the liberal arts that relied on careful reading of texts with patience and perseverance and arrived at judgement on the basis of ‘objectivity’ and ‘dispassionate enquiry’. Such an approach, the hallmark of traditional scholarship in the liberal arts, has served the test of time. Newer models have come as answers to the current needs in late capitalism. The challenge today is to creatively harness the power of the social/new media in the light of the earlier wisdom. Only then can we reinvent the liberal arts in the new millennium.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. Winner of many national and international awards, he has published extensively in the field of British, American, gender, translation and post-colonial studies. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

Endnotes

1. See https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberal-arts, accessed on December 23, 2021.

2. See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Culture-and-Anarchy, accessed on December 23, 2021.

3. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/social-media.asp. Accessed on December 23, 2021.

4. See Gao, Ruian, “New Media Critique--Weakness of Social Media”, Conference Proceedings of the International Conference on Education, Science and Economic Development, 2019.

5. See Blumer, Jay G. and Gurevitch Michael, “The New Media and Our Political Communication Discontents: Democratizing Cyber Space”, Information, Communication and Society, 4-1, 2001.

6. Ibid., page 1

7. See Leavis, F.R., The Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought, Chatto and Windus, 1975.

8. See “Veracity or Virality? How social media are Transforming History”, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/182017, accessed on December 23, 2021.

9. See https://theconversation.com/how-the-media-encourages-and-sustains-political-warfare-100941, accessed on December 24, 2021.