The Mediated Mind: Cold War Politics, Human Ecology, and the Making of “Media Literacy”
T. Philip Nichols

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Baylor University

Primary Discipline

Literacy and/or English/Language Education
Since 2016, “media literacy” has received revived attention among educators and the general public. It has emerged as a recurrent theme in op-eds, whitepapers, and edited volumes – each weighing how the concept might be mobilized to address misinformation, “fake news,” and the reactionary political movements bolstered by them. Some, however, have questioned media literacy’s fitness for this task. They suggest that, in promoting a posture of generalized skepticism – which can be used to dismiss credible information as easily as it can nativist conspiracies – media literacy may contribute to, rather than address, the “post-truth” information landscape. In other words, at the same moment media literacy is emerging as a pressing public concern for education, uncertainties abound as to how (or if) it can be meaningfully translated into pedagogy or practice. This project attends to these present gridlocks in media education by turning to its past. It examines “media literacy” not as a set of critical skills or practices, but as a contingent historical formation – one that inherits, from the political and scientific contexts that shaped it, assumptions which condition its possibilities and limitations today. The study draws on archival and published primary sources to map the emergence of U.S. media education – not just, as the established historiography goes, as an outgrowth of propaganda analysis or critical awareness training, but as an upshot of Cold War investments in scientific research on human ecology, cognitive psychology, and cybernetics. These “ecological” orientations to media were less concerned with representational practices (e.g. the consumption/production of media messages) than with the relationships among media, minds, and political formation. The project traces the popularization of this orientation in curriculum and teaching in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as its decline in the 1980s – when the agenda for media education consolidated around “media literacy” and the representational practices most commonly associated with the term today. In doing so, the study not only charts an alternate history of media education, but also makes visible dormant assumptions that clarify its present frustrations, and abandoned pasts that may yet be of use for tuning media pedagogy to the challenges before us.
About T. Philip Nichols
T. Philip Nichols is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University. Phil uses historical and ethnographic methods to study how science and technology condition the ways we practice, teach, and talk about literacy – and the implications for just and equitable public education. His research also engages wider questions about the politics of data, technology, and algorithmic rationality and their inflections in teaching and learning. Phil’s work appears in Educational Researcher, Teachers College Record, Research in the Teaching of English, Reading Research Quarterly, Learning, Media and Technology, and Curriculum Inquiry, as well as practitioner- and public-oriented venues, like Phi Delta Kappan and The Atlantic. His first book, Innovation from Below: Building Infrastructures for Equity in 21st Century Schools, is forthcoming from Teachers College Press, and he is currently co-editing (with Antero Garcia) Literacies in the Platform Society: Histories, Pedagogies, Possibilities. Phil is also the editor of Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (English), and a past recipient of a National Academy of Education /Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship (2017). A former middle and high school English teacher, he holds a Ph.D. in Literacy, Culture and International Education and an M.A. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania.

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