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Martin Scorsese and George Lucas Discuss Cinema and Visual Literacy in Education

There are already plenty of universities and colleges that teach communications and film, but very few schools below that level get much further than basic art and music classes. Teaching film in schools, or at least using the language of film to help teach communications, is rarely considered in these lower-level schools. Usually if films are even shown, it’s when there’s nothing to teach, or as a break from regular classes. In the videos below (which were recorded in 2006 and 2005, respectively), Martin Scorsese and George Lucas discuss the importance of visual literacy and using the language of cinema in education.

As communication beomces more and more visual, and we consume more video than ever before in the history of mankind, it might be time to reexamine the way visual media has traditionally been used in teaching. I tend to agree with both Scorsese and Lucas about visual literacy in education. Of course it’s still important to teach basic subjects, and science and math are just as, if not more important than they’ve always been, but I think there is a considerable amount that can be learned from cinema.


I really like the way Lucas talks about using films and media in a practical sense, and not something taught strictly in the way it would in an art or film class. We are literally bombarded every single day by images and videos, from advertisements on the street, to our TV screens, to our computers, tablets, and smartphones. I think the more that people understand what these images mean and how all of this visual stimuli affects us, the better off we’ll be as a civilization. At the very least, reexamining the way we’ve been doing things for the last 50-100 years and not taking anything off the table will be a major step in the right direction.

How do you guys feel about this? Do you think visual literacy is something that should be incorporated into basic education? How do you think the language of cinema should be taught in schools? How do you feel about using film as a teaching tool?

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  • The older you get the more you tend to underestimate the intelligence of the young. Public schools barely teach the basics as it is, and everyone wants to pile more non-essential stuff on top of it.

  • Visual literacy is taught as part of the English curriculum here in all secondary schools in NSW (Australia) – film/video/visual advertising is seen as just another form of text, a way of communicating ideas, notions & stories. Students are encouraged to “read” visual symbolism in the same way they might read a novel/short story etc. In their final year, Year 12 Higher School Certificate (HSC), students attempting the highest level English extension can submit their final work in the form of video if they choose, and many do..

  • Warning. Rabbit Hole ahead. Proceed without caution.

    Listening to these knuckleheads blather about the value of visual literacy makes me want to champion private school all the more. Lucas uses some made up anecdote (think of the poor weee hewpwess wittle children!) of a kid who isn’t good at reading or whatever, but intuitively gets ideas and language, and then stresses that we (collectively) ought to make an effort to help him out. Because maybe we (collectively) aren’t doing a good enough job for him. Scorcese talks ad naseum about how he learned about cinematic language, as if it were important. Screw this mumbo jumbo BS. Neither Lucas nor Scorcese had this education they want to give our (collective) kids. They turned out fine learning it on their own. There is no need to teach it in our public schools. Or better yet, if you (individually) think it is needed, spend your own money to have your kids taught whatever this crap is so they can communicate more effectively. That’s what value is, putting your money where your mouth is. As a rule, don’t try and spend my money for what you think is important, as I may not agree. And not agreeing leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. Man, how corny. I automatically treat anyone who allowed words like that into his movie as highly suspect intellectual wise. Know what I’m talking about? Nothing personal.

    When I was in college, so many professors thought whatever they were teaching was more important than anything else in existence. Because each subject had such wisdom flowing from it. I specifically remember a biology teacher talking about genetics and how there was a revolution going on right now (then). I remember an archaeology professor proclaiming similar things. Maybe they were all practicing spell casting for grants, I don’t know. But there is this tendency, maybe its myopic, of people thinking whatever they are doing or interested in is really all important to the world. I see bloggers doing it all the time too. If I had to pick my own pet, it would be economics that I would want all the world to better understand.

    I don’t think we have to teach young people anything about film or storytelling. Those interested will find out about it on their own. Those not will find out about whatever they become interested in. Or nothing. That’s ok. I have a brother interested in motors. He could not care less about films/movies. Why should he know more about it? Who in their right mind (or wrong) would try to cram such useless info into his skull? There is no reason I can think of that he should be compelled to learn about it. And that is the way it ought to be, or, as it’s been written, each ought to be able to pursue their own happiness.

    I would also take issue with the proffered by Scorcese point that film is powerful. It rankles in my mind. Films can attempt to appeal to baser impulses in people, but no film can induce me to do anything. I don’t think a film can incite a riot and I don’t think a film can conquer a people. Supposedly, in the early 1900′s, film of a train coming at the audience caused people jump out of their seats and scatter, as they weren’t used to moving images. But now, with the omnipresence of moving images, their novelty is long gone. I doubt you could find a group of people anywhere in the world (save maybe North Korea) that you could get scared of a moving object.

    Since I’m going down a certain rabbit hole, might as well talk about a few of the classics. I wonder about the actual power in the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin. It’s ethereal in nature. It appeals to a base sense of injustice being witnessed. Maybe it could move someone, inspire them with righteous indignation. But not today. Maybe back then. For certain, caricatures are far more common in films than characters, then as now. Many of those old soviet filmmakers wrote a lot about the power of images. They were less successful bringing the propaganda to any sort of fruition worldwide. Ever see Enthusiasm? If yes, you’ll understand my serious joke. Film only has so much power. And it’s very limited.

    The purported father of film grammar made some very base movies. One D.W. Griffith made is infamous. Birth of a Nation. Is it really powerful? Was it powerful? Made in a very different time. People have claimed it started riots. I’m skeptical of that claim as actual truth. It’s a lost cause movie only surpassed by Gone With the Wind. Ever suffered through that one? It’s like it never freaking ends. Back to BOAN. It hasn’t had lasting influence in any respectable way. It is now an odd artifact from another time. I almost look at it like a Rosetta stone for understanding people in another era. Foreign people to me. And yet, honestly, if I were born in that era, I would be of their mind. Likely you too. Ending that tangent. It’s a dead movie as far as influence goes now. No one I know calls it their favorite. I would suspect that if anyone did, it would be for peculiar reasons more scholarly than because of its storytelling prowess displayed. So wherein lies that films power? It’s inscrutably obscure. Maybe power is the wrong term to apply to film? I think I get what he’s trying to say, but perhaps its a case of language not capturing/conveying an idea well. Power just doesn’t fit. Not in any objective way. I’m now immune to the professed power of so many films. So, how powerful can it be if one is able to be inoculated against it? Kinda joking and kinda not. Still reading? I’m a powerful bullshitter, no? I’ve read BOAN was a sensation. Books have been written about it that I have not read. That’s powerful. It has perhaps dominated some of the popular image of what the American Civil War was about. Actual veterans and ex-slaves were alive when it was made. It was made by the son of a Confederate if I remember correctly. I’m not an authority, but I know the NAACP made a stink about the historical accuracy of the film. I think they overplayed their argument when they tried to get it banned (I adhere to the argument that more speech is better than less, and don’t like censorship, period. The answer to bad speech is correcting it. Public argument. Show where it is factually wrong). Where the heck am I going?

    Old Leni. How powerful is her imagery in her propaganda? Again, I think its a difficult question to really gauge objectively. I can feel the imagery. A naked display of power and young people in chorus making displays of strength and national greatness. But, it’s just an appeal to physical beauty and health. It’s surface deep. She let herself be used as a tool to make a commercial for the Nazis. I didn’t buy it. Most of the world didn’t. How powerful?

    And now, finally, the best example. I give you Dallas. Not kidding. Watch the argument. http://reason.com/blog/2012/11/24/how-larry-hagman-saved-romania-from-comm

    • Left a few words out above (can you believe it?) The last sentence in the fifth paragraph needs “of images” before “of a moving object” to make sense. Apologies.

    • I’ll jump in real quick.
      “Those interested will find out about it on their own.”
      Well, I agree. However, I think what’s important is to empower/assure adults to want to help their kids, and not think that whatever their passion (be it motors or cinema) is pointless is pursuing.

      As for how you believe modern films might not have the power they used to, I don’t believe the power of film has waned. Much.

      Film is a medium for communication, much like dance, song…even speech. If Abraham Lincoln was able to inspire others, it may be attributed to those people (in the audience) already feeling a certain way, and hearing someone (speaker) communicate that they (speaker) feel the same inspires them (audience) to action. There have been great orators in the past(Winston Churchill) AND the present (Barack Obama) [not comparing them, just giving two examples] and likewise, there have been great filmmakers in the past (Georges Méliès, Orson Welles, etc) AND present (Paul Thomas Anderson, Ben Affleck, etc.) [again, not one-to-one comparisons].

      • Yes. Do what you want in life. Why do you need a school to teach you? To empower you? It’s not needed.

        More than once, Obama off his teleprompter, has been painful to watch. I don’t buy into cults of personality. And Lincoln wasn’t really that popular until he died. People argued over his decisions a lot while he was alive. I love tangents, but is this one really worth pursuing?

        • -_-

          It isn’t because those are your opinions on those speakers. i gave my opinion on good speakers as an example. Don’t use your non-admiration of Obama and/or Lincoln to shoot down my opinion. I thought we could have a civil discussion, guess I was wrong…

          • What, pray tell, would you call your take home message in what you just wrote? And pardon me if I don’t really look up to any demagogues as paragons of virtue. And I brought that up about Lincoln because, if i understand the historical evidence correctly, most of his fame concerning speeches is post-mortem. I’ll grant he was a great writer. I’m not convinced concerning orator.

            Again, I am dubious that this tangent leads anywhere useful. I’m game to ride it out as far as you want. I’m getting bogged down in details explaining why the examples you cavalierly use don’t really work so well for me metaphorically, and you don’t seem to like to play along, but rather want to imply I am uncivil. May I take umbrage? Anyone ever asked you for permission to take umbrage before? Can one possibly be more civil in a discussion?

            Might as well throw out my skepticism of dance as a powerful force for communicating as well. Dancing doesn’t really have much of a vocabulary that I can read to convey abstract ideas coherently. That’s the bar I would subjectively set concerning the function of communication. Dancing expresses a something out of dancers, but I wouldn’t call it communicating. This seems to me another example of using the second cousin of a more proper word that would describe whatever dancing “does” or functions as. Am I way off base?

            If you need a shorter version, let me just say this. Whatever.

    • MediaMalable on 11.26.12 @ 4:31AM

      I disagree with so much of that.

      First of all that “poor hewpwess wittle kid” as you so condescendingly put it was Lucas himself, someone who struggled in school, and wasn’t considered to be anyone of much value by his teachers or classmates when he was really young. Yet it turned out he was an extraordinarily creative guy, just in a way that didn’t involve sitting in class room doing math on paper. For every George Lucas out there, who ignores that and does it anyway, there are hundreds of kids who give up and believe they really are dumb, and don’t try to achieve anything because they feel they can’t.

      Second of all you said that film isn’t powerful. I think that’s nonsense. In World War II a huge portion of war bonds, that helped fund the military, were sold outside movie theaters after people saw patriotic war movies, and left, moved by them, and gave whatever they could. Likewise in the 70s there was an American TV series called Holocaust. When it finally showed in Germany, the reaction was utter shock. The new generation of Germans had no real idea the scope of the crime the last generation had committed. It had A GIGANTIC influence in the culture, so much so that the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes was EXTENDED so that war criminals could still be prosecuted, so dramatic was the public outcry after the seeing the series. It took an American TV series, a piece of filmmaking, to do that.

      Film is unbelievably powerful, probably the most powerful art form ever invented to convey ideas. It gets into your head in such a basic way. Think about it, how many images of our own country, and of all others, come from film? Almost all of them. Our entire image of the world around us is drawn from movies.

      • I didn’t say people shouldn’t pursue their dreams.

        You want me to feel sorry for Lucas? I think he’s done rather well for himself. And he want’s to be generous with other peoples money. Not his own. What he is talking about, teaching kids, nationwide, would cost a lot of money. And, were he coddled, do you think he would have ended up creating what he did? I doubt it. One can never know though. One can argue what ifs forever. All that would be is endless unprovable assertions. And how many chances do you want to give kids with taxpayer dollars? Serious question. Why should this be in the realm of public school? If technology is so cheap now, why can’t these dreams be pursued privately? Soulless heathen that I am, I wonder about things like this.

        I waffled all around film being powerful. It’s not a very useful term for describing film. I get why it’s used, for lack of better terminology, but it’s rather useless in descriptive terms. Film is powerful and yet it isn’t. It moves some, and not others and sometimes the same person at other times is unmoved. It is the most manipulative (emotionally) art form, but viewers get callous and/or blase about it. That’s why describing film as powerful is so empty. Savvy?

  • I think George touches upon a very interesting idea: that when we are born, we all have fairly equal competence/potential in all forms of communication. I would actually go further than what George says later, and say that art *is* communication, and that there is no real difference between them. People make art to communicate, just as people talk or write to communicate. Although talking and writing are our standard methods of communication, perhaps schools should stop stressing art as “something you have or not have/talent-based” and promote song, dance, film, etc. as alternatives to verbal and written communication. I know personally I am not terribly competent in speech or written communication, but put me behind a camera, or on a dance floor and I can get my point across pretty effectively!

  • @Abersouth… I pity you, I really do. Clearly you have no soul.

  • More or less I agree with you. I hail from the MTV generation, and my generation didn’t have (or need) visual literacy taught to us in school.

  • Mark Morris on 11.26.12 @ 10:52AM

    Oh come on Surely this is just a cop out so kids who dont want to learn and an easy way out can study films. Yep suits famous film makers because they want to will be gods in this.
    Lets get real and give kids what they really need Loving discipline so they have the ability to learn proper subjetcs like Science art English Biology and not how star was managed to tell a good story whic lets face it succesful films happen by chance and luck more than skill. Star wars was so big that people went back and watched all the new films which did they match up to expectation?

    Every one understands the language of film simply because they watch them No need to be able to communicate this to others because it would be a rather silly conversation and I think if everyone wanted to be film makers civilisation would end.Maybe we should all practice with TV’s on our heads.

    • Mark Morris on 11.26.12 @ 1:27PM

      Sorry bit harsh on George Lucas He is a living legend!

    • Geez, I think you’re taking this a little too heavily. They only desire that visual communication is given more importance in school. They make excellent points about why teaching kids more about visual communication in a world of visual media is important (Most advertisements used to be written; now they are stills/video based).

      From reading your post, you obviously consider film not to be important, and that is a valid opinion. However, teaching every kid even a little bit more about visual communication will help kids become more generally intelligent overall. Just as people expect others to know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, we can come to expect people to understand the significance in panning left to right in a NIKE running commercial (mimics how our eyes read text, so the action will have an added sense of ease), or the significance of the lines in the Mona Lisa to better appreciate it (if you assume I mean physical lines, you’d be illustrating my point of why we need to be more educated).

  • Mark Morris on 11.27.12 @ 5:57PM

    Look film studies are usually a cop out for the kids who either dont have the intellect background or discipline to learn proper subjects. Film studies will not give 99.9% of kids a career in fact it is a dead end in the vast majority of cases. How many here who love film making have jobs in the industry or likely to. How many will live a life dreaming about something that will never happen In the meantime many have dead end jobs hoping for a better future that will never come. Teaching visual film communication feeds those going now where with a fantasy that doesnt exist. Better to encourage them to study real subjects that will give them career prospects and proper hopes for the future where they can have decent lives raise families and contribute to society. For just about all of us the film world is closed of Just like writing. Millions are at it the odds are overwhelming. When Hollywood wants to write a script they employ writers. Those outside the system enter competitions and often get their ideas stripped.

    Okay that said IF you leave school and want to pursue a film career FINE but you will have to take a JOB and if you wasted your time at school it is likely to be a crap job and you will always be broke trying to make your own stuff buy the latest camera and equipment OR entering the competitions attending Guru courses subscribing to countless money making schemes that will get you precisely nowhere. When you finally discover the doors are firmly closed and you are going nowwhere AND THAT YOU WASTED YOUR TIME MONEY AND YOUTH you will be an old man my son. But there will be plenty of rich Gurus and rich camera manufacturers and stars of hollywood will still be giving their kids the new film roles.

  • In the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Books used to be written by men of letters and read by the general public; now, they’re written by the general public and read by nobody”. Today, the same could be said of CDs and videos. “Visual literacy”, hah ha; let’s add “aural painting”. Only in America. The “elephant in the room” is that our educational results are among the lowest in the civilized world. Let’s make a movie about that! / There are in excess of 1800 University studies that demonstrate that videos and film are ineffective in supporting the learning process, and that the human brain is lulled and not stimulated by the moving image. In simple terms, nothing is effective as books and reading. Sorry, kids, ya gonna have to turn off da TV and do some work.

  • Matt Thomas on 11.30.12 @ 4:47PM

    People seem to think that what both Lucas and Scorcesse are saying is that we should value film/visual literacy over English, Maths etc. That’s simply not the case. They might be a little overzealous in presenting an argument for further education in visual literacy because that’s the life they lead. They make their living communicating visually (well…maybe not Lucas as of late) so of course they’re going to use extreme examples to get a point across.

    However, the fact that the “human brain is lulled” by the moving image as an earlier poster put, is the exact reason that advertising is so successful. You can claim that you aren’t affected by adverts and that no one will tell you what to do, but how do you choose where to buy your groceries? Where do you go and why? Is it because they have cheap prices? If so, where did you find out about them? ADVERTISING – the most prevalent form of visual communication today. Everyone wants you to buy their product and go to great lengths to reach consumers in any way possible, with the most successful campaigns targeting those who have switched off after a long day at the office and are staring blankly at the TV.

    Surely it would benefit younger generations to understand how companies are using these techniques of visual communication to manipulate them and mould them into living a lifestyle with an urge to consume almost as great as the basic urge to eat?

    That’s the most important reason for a greater emphasis than is currently placed on visual communication.

    However, the suggestion from Mark that those who chose to pursue film as a career should have focussed on other subjects that lead to a ‘real’ career as one in film is a dead end is utterly ridiculous. That’s like saying that someone who wanted a career in marine biology should study business studies in case they don’t get to where they want. It doesn’t matter what career you choose to pursue, but once you know where you want to be, you aren’t going to focus your efforts on another career. I’m perfectly happy in my current job – I’m a porter in a hotel in London. I have prospects to work my way up the ladder, but that doesn’t stop me from spending my money and spare time making films. I graduated from university I’m applying to film school to do my Masters, and if I don’t get in, I’ll still keep making films. I’ll keep trying to get a foot in the door that you so claim is well and truly shut. I’ve also accepted that I’m in it for the long haul and that there is quite the chance that I won’t get anywhere at all. That’s not to say that I will have wasted my life because I spent it doing what I enjoy doing most – making films!

    So get off your high horse and stop telling me that I’m wasting my life. Whether it’s been wasted or not is my decision and mine alone.

  • Matt Thomas on 11.30.12 @ 4:49PM

    I also just realised I spelt Scorsese’s name wrong…for all you trolls out there waiting to pounce.

  • James Barret on 12.2.12 @ 8:22AM

    Time and time again discussions of this are reduced to ‘Study what will make you happiest regardless of practicalities, because a pursuit of capital alone is vapid’ vs ‘Study what will increase your capital because well-being can be bought and happiness can be sought out of work, if not already found in it’

  • My daughter want’s study film-making & I’ve been reading about how the expensive colleges aren’t necessarily helpful…which community college film programs have you heard are good?