Popular Culture Essay

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Before students ever set foot in a classroom, they have accrued an understanding of teachers and teaching. That is, children come to school already having consumed images and ideas about education. Popular culture (mediated texts like television, films, magazines, music, comic books, etc.) partially informs such a cumulative text. Since ideas about schooling are socially constructed, popular culture influences the knowledge people (adults and children) have about schooling. Popular culture mediates the sociocultural context from which schooling is understood. This means that analyses about schooling must include questions of how popular culture helps inform these understandings. This entry examines how the investigation and inclusion of popular culture is important to our knowledge about schooling.

The Role Of Culture

Popular culture texts are often utilized as part of people’s leisure activities. They are generally texts that amuse or entertain. People, including students, seek out texts as willing consumers. They read magazines, watch television and movies, and listen to music of their choice. Some view the texts as harmless entertainment, while others argue the different texts comprise a larger institution, often synonymous with media, that works to uphold society’s values.

This is one of the main reasons educators have become concerned with popular culture as a site of education. Ideological messages are communicated through representations, thus popular culture becomes a teaching tool. People learn about the world, including schools, through these representations. For example, a child may learn about gender roles from watching Disney films, most of which illustrate traditional and confining gender stereotypes. Through media, people also have access to worlds with which they may not be familiar. For example, many Americans learn about the Middle East only through mediated representations, having never traveled or lived there.

People also learn about themselves through the consumption of texts. For example, many students, questioning their sexual identities but having no experience outside of the heterosexual world, may learn what it means to be gay through texts like Will & Grace or Brokeback Mountain. Popular culture is a teacher and the lessons taught are not always consistent with educators’ beliefs about what students should learn.

People also construct vivid understandings about schooling through popular culture texts. One way people come to know schools, teachers, and students is through viewing the ways they are portrayed on television or in Hollywood films. For example, through watching films like Dangerous Minds or television programs like Boston Public, people may conclude that urban schools are dangerous places and kids of color within urban schools are in desperate need of saving by White teachers. Films like Clueless and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may suggest that White upper-middle-class youth are self-absorbed, consumed by the desire for popularity and material goods, and that their teachers are easily duped by their adolescent antics.

Through media, people also hear how unprepared and unprofessional teachers really are, and they are taught the dominant discourses surrounding what makes a good teacher. This is ideological knowledge filed away in consciousness. Unless these images get interrupted by personal and/or professional experiences in schools, people construct negative images of the education system because there are few positive images portrayed in popular culture.

Popular Culture And Academia

Popular culture has not always been welcomed into academia. Part of this is due to the binary that exists between academic versus popular knowledge. Many cultural theorists believe the reason for this is that popular culture had long been viewed as a lower form of culture compared to artifacts like theater and opera. The Frankfurt School theorists engaged in critical communication studies in the 1930s and, with the help of Theodor Adorno, coined the term mass culture. This term actually reified the binary between high and low culture. Though followers of the Frankfurt School analyzed mass culture within the context of the cultural industry in which the artifacts were produced, many critics now believe that Adorno and others viewed the “culture industries” as too adept at mass deception. Instead of envisioning consumers as capable of resistance, the Frankfurt School viewed them as easily duped by the industry. They conceptualized mass culture as an ideological tool, which existed to legitimate the status quo.

The Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was the next large academic focus on popular culture. It came out of the U. K. in the early 1960s and approached popular culture from a multidisciplinary perspective. The intent of those affiliated with British cultural studies (BCS) at the time was to subvert the binary that existed between high and low culture and to do that, they rejected the term mass culture. Cultural critics now charge BCS with analyzing popular culture texts from a narrow perspective. Although participants in BCS conceptualized texts as either dominating consumers or enabling resistance, many critics now claim there was too much of a focus on class and a lack of focus on race and gender.

As a discipline, cultural studies has been and continues to be dynamic, that is, changing in response to social, political, and historical contexts. In the 1970s feminist scholars and Black scholars challenged the discipline to look at the ways gender and race, like class, must inform any study of culture. This raced and gendered influence continues to be seen in cultural studies texts that examine popular culture today. This focus has expanded to also include notions of ability, sexuality, and all other features of identity.

Popular Culture And Critical Pedagogy

Cultural studies work, by necessity, is interdisciplinary. This has enabled educational theorists to make links between popular culture and schooling. The discussion of popular culture and critical pedagogy has examined questions about the relationship between knowledge and power. In the early 1990s, there was a move to include the study of popular culture in the development and practice of critical pedagogy. Many argued that critical pedagogy must include popular culture as a site of inquiry and schools should be conceptualized as instructional sites as well as cultural sites.

Schools were places that produced subjects and subjectivities. One of the ways students constructed knowledge was through learning from popular culture. It was believed that if educators could acknowledge popular culture as a site of learning, they could link learning school knowledge to students’ everyday lives. Since part of critical pedagogy is working toward a democratic society while empowering students, understanding how students constructed knowledge through practices outside of school could only assist educators in the empowerment of students.

The relationship between popular culture and schooling is complex, particularly as it relates to pedagogy. Since popular culture is most often reflective of youth culture, school systems, including both administrations and teachers, and youth, often clash over its incorporation in school social and academic settings. In schools, a familiar stance is one of opposition to popular culture sharing academic space. Students are often chastised for or forbidden from participating in popular culture in schools where certain genres of music, I-pods, body art, trendy magazines, and words on T-shirts are banned and labeled as destructive and distracting. This judgment made by schools on the popular cultural choice of students is often met with resistance since many students see these expressions as integral parts of their identities.

At the same time, teachers seeking to include popular culture in the classroom will choose texts they deem “proper,” which students may or may not find relevant or representative of their lives, and this too is often met with resistance. This resistance informs how children perform their role as students. It dictates when they decide to listen, cooperate, and learn and when they dismiss a teacher’s knowledge and academics as irrelevant to their social world.

Critical pedagogues believe teachers can learn to embrace and utilize popular culture and its multiple forms of expression without judgment. Doing so changes the nature of authority in the classroom as students become experts and knowledge holders and the teachers become learners. Educators may have to accept that they can never be the “experts” in this arena. Due to its dynamic nature, once a popular culture form enters the realm of teacher knowledge and pedagogy and is made acceptable in school settings students lose interest and move on to the newest, latest, and coolest forms of expression.


The field of cultural studies has also examined the processes of consumption as a cultural site. The discipline explains that this phenomenon is not just about economics but also incorporates desires, identities, and dreams. These desires and dreams are fueled by popular culture texts that shape and reflect what items kids think are “cool” and what brings status. They direct the trajectories of consumer culture. As a result of their relationships with both the items and the popular culture representations, kids are often accused of materialism. This materialism, and the means by which students go about acquiring desired material goods like the latest pair of designer jeans, the most up-to-date technology, or the hottest new sneakers, is looked upon as detrimental to academic progress since it is claimed that the focus on school work is often overshadowed by preoccupations with material items.

This engagement with consumer culture is highly contested across class, genderd, and racial lines. Students from low-income families are often berated for their preoccupation with items they cannot afford. Students of color are often represented as criminal in their attempts to secure items, since a dominant discourse presumes they steal from their classmates and others. Internalizing these representations results in a preoccupation on the part of schooling systems with character education and security measures designed at reigning in these consequences of consumption practices and mitigating the influence of popular culture.

Representation And Marginalization

Some educational theorists questioned not the linkage between critical pedagogy and popular culture but the means to obtain it. These theorists claimed much of the work on critical pedagogy neglected the potential contradictions between various political movements and subsumed everything under a White, working-class, male perspective. This critique occurred while a growing field of cultural criticism was emerging.

Many cultural critics, concerned with the ways ideology was transmitted through popular culture forms, turned their attention to critiquing the power of the few representations that existed of marginalized groups like African Americans, Latinos, and gays and lesbians. Critiques about representation of marginalized groups have been important because of the ways the dominant society utilizes popular culture as a means for us to learn about ourselves and others. At first, critiques focused on the lack of representation and/or the negative stereotypes embedded within the representation. Soon, attention turned to how audiences make sense of the representations and how that sense making informs their understandings about themselves and others. This attention to meaning making by the discipline revealed that audiences are active participants in popular cultural discourses, not empty vessels waiting to be filled or cultural dupes led only by what they see and hear.

Media Literacy

Media literacy is the teaching about the power of textual representation. Before teachers can help students to become critical consumers of popular culture, they must first educate themselves. The move toward media literacy in schools takes two approaches. The first approach views media in a critical way. It conceptualizes popular culture as an ideological tool (similar to the Frankfurt School) but works to teach students how to be critical consumers and uncover the embedded ideology within a text. This type of media literacy grew out of Stuart Hall’s conceptualization of three reading strategies a viewer may utilize to make sense of a popular culture text. The reading positions, dominant, negotiated, and resistant, are directly related to the reader’s social position in relation to dominant ideology. A dominant reader, because of his or her position in society, is often blind to dominant ideology and, therefore, much of the ideological messages and negative stereotypes produced by racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism remain invisible. Media literacy in this approach seeks to assist students in uncovering the ideology and critiquing the negative stereotypes as part of a larger project toward social justice.

The second approach is similar to the critical pedagogy stance but also has similarities to the BCS approach. Here popular culture is viewed as an integral part of students’ lives. By validating students’ consumption of popular culture, educators are validating student-constructed knowledge. This approach also views popular culture as a space of resistance. Students may learn about themselves and others but are also able to speak back to the messages they garner. This type of media literacy takes the stance that popular culture is capable of more than being an agent of ideological domination. Instead, it is viewed as an authentic part of the student’s experience. Educators must understand what students know and learn from the popular culture texts they consume. By valuing this student knowledge, educators are viewed as helping to further democracy and emancipation, in other words, a media literacy version of liberatory education.


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