You Are What You Download
“You Are What You Download” offers a twist on an old catch phrase “you are what you eat.” As educators, as parents and as spiritual leaders we compete with many streams of popular culture in our attempt to educate and raise our youth. This month’s JUSTeach addresses your students’ choices in music, reading material and films. How do the choices we make regarding which movies to view, which books to read and which music to download affirm or challenge the seven core values of Catholic social teaching? How does popular culture impact our development in matters of spirit and justice? What messages do our youth receive from popular culture? How can we help them make wise decisions in choosing music, films and reading material? What role do artists have in society? Can a “negative” element in a piece of art ever be a “positive?”
We want our students to be literate, to be able to read, to be familiar with the arts, to know and appreciate their culture. And we want them to be literate in terms of their faith. Art has often been used as an agent of social change and as a way of expressing faith, and generations have gone back and forth over whether or not the popular culture of any given moment promotes positive or negative elements of the culture. But rather than arguing the specific merits of any work, our goal is to give our students the tools to analyze and choose wisely as they increasingly make their own choices. We want them to engage their minds and hearts whenever encountering film, music, books or other artistic endeavors. Our children have many choices in terms of popular media through technological advances including podcasts, mp3 downloads, music videos, television and cable broadcasts. In addition, they can choose material from a variety of filmmakers, magazines, newspapers and books many of them available online. What guidelines do they use in judging a particular piece’s value? Can popular culture help us to break open discussions of Catholic social teaching values?
Some films such as Romero, Blood Diamond, When Did I See You Hungry, or Dead Man Walking have obvious links to discussions of Catholic social teaching. Issues such as the oppression and torture of the poor, unfair labor practices, hunger and poverty, and the death penalty might make it easier to discuss these films in light of our faith. But we are formed in part by all the popular media to which we are exposed. How do you bring faith into the discussion when the connection isn’t as obvious? How can a teacher possibly even know all the various cultural forces students have experienced? One way to enter the conversation is to look at what the various pieces have to say about God and the human person by using values of Catholic social teaching to view the works.
Activity: Prepare a review of a popular song, movie, book or television show looking through the lens of CST.
Students could work individually and prepare written reviews or work in pairs to present and discuss their chosen material in an “Ebert and Roeper” style presentation for the class. (For the oral presentation, have them choose more than one artistic piece to allow for dialogue within the presentation.)
Have your students decide on some basic guidelines for use in their review using some or all of the discussion guidelines below or allow them to create their own using some aspect of Catholic social teaching values. Have them include the guidelines in their presentations or written assignments.
-Material to be reviewed: songs, films, books, etc.
-Seven core values of Catholic social teaching
-Models of reviews from secular and Catholic newspapers and magazines or from those viewed on television.
Ask your students to name some of their favorite music, movies, television shows and reading material. Why do they like it? Are there any they really dislike? Why? Is there general agreement on what is “good” and what is not?
-Ask them to think about what the material has to say about the human person. Does it promote human dignity or degrade any person or group of people? Does it stereotype anyone? Shatter stereotypes? Scapegoat anyone? Make fun of anyone? Objectify anyone? Affirm anyone?
-What if anything does it say about God or God’s movement through our lives? If God is not mentioned, does it leave room for God?
-What does it say about relationships and participation between people, between countries, within families and in communities or schools etc.? Does it speak at all to the value of the common good? Does it promote unity? Is it divisive? Are relationships based on the value of human dignity? Is God part of the relationship? If not mentioned in the artistic work, is there room for God or is any sense of God’s role negated?
-Does it promote a respect for life or is life cheapened by the words spoken or actions depicted?
-Does it acknowledge suffering in the world? Does it offer any remedy?
-If the material refers to “peace” or to “justice,” what meaning of the term is promoted?
-Does it promote love or send a message of indifference, anger, manipulation or hate?
-Does it value the dignity of work and value the worker as well?
-Does it promote care of creation?
-Does it glorify racism, consumerism, individualism, militarism, sexism or other “isms” that too often become false gods in our culture?
-Overall, can the work be seen as affirming the values of Catholic social teaching?
Although art has often been used as an agent of social change, art can also reinforce negative aspects of any culture. However, can a negative ever lead to a positive? For instance, can depicting the truth of stereotyping or a situation where life is cheapened ever have any artistic value? Could the negative be used to bring about discussion and transformation in society? In such cases is there any sense of redemption at the end of the artistic work being discussed? Or is some negative element being used more in the sense to shock or belittle a certain person or people and affirm the dehumanization being experienced in real life? How can we judge?
-Take the project home and expand its impact. Suggest your students compile a list of their parents’ or grandparents’ favorite films, music, books dating back to their high school days. What are the older generation’ favorite songs, movies etc. from recent times? Have them use the discussion guidelines at home to make the project an intergenerational one at the family table. Perhaps some students could engage an older family member in an intergenerational presentation for the class on a theme such as human dignity using various songs, films and books from across the years to make their points.
-Students might be interested in preparing a presentation on the role of the artist in society using the lens of Catholic social teaching. (John Paul II’s Letter to Artists listed in the resources below would be a good resource.)
-If any of your students are in the performing arts challenge them to come up with a list of guidelines as to what type music they would perform or reject or what roles in films they might accept or reject? What moral issues might arise in their pursuing a career in the performing arts? What value might such a vocation have for the individual and for their audience?
-Have students make a list of younger children’s books, films, or songs and using themes and/or characters develop a lesson plan to help teach some value of Catholic social teaching to younger students. Write and illustrate such a book or prepare a video or song.
-Students could make a list of their choices for the ten top artistic works that affirm the core values of Catholic social teaching and explain their choices. They could also make a list of the ten that negate those same values.
-Compile your students’ reviews and/or lists into a folder and exchange them with another class’s folder or make a copy for parish use to help others make wise decisions.
-Challenge students to write prayers or petitions for those in the arts and for the wisdom to make wise choices in the art they choose in their lives.
http://www.paxjoliet.org/justeach/justeach2.html Peace and Social Justice Ministry of the Joliet Diocese lists the core values of Catholic social teaching.
www.educationforjustice.org For those with access to the Center of Concerns Education for Justice pages, the material on the movie Blood Diamond is an excellent example of using popular media to open up discussion of Catholic social teaching.
www.blooddiamondaction.org Amnesty International and Global Witness have also put out a discussion guide for the movie Blood Diamond though not written through the lens of CST.
http://www.lifeteen.com/Our Sunday Visitor Lifeteen website with short online reviews for modeling classroom review assignments.
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html John Paul II’s Letter to Artists in which he recognizes the human need for beauty to ward off chaos and affirms the role of the Spirit in art. See particularly the sections on “The Artist and the Common Good” and “In the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”
Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Dostoevsky in saying “Beauty will save the world.” The arts can play an important role in bringing about peace and justice. In nurturing your students’ artistic talents and helping them to analyze the arts they encounter through music, film and books, you are giving them a lifelong gift. The creative energies of your students will no doubt produce much beauty in your classroom and also be a gift to the world in the years to come. Thank you for making your classrooms a place of beauty, peace and justice. Blessings, Colette Wisnewski