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Walt Disney created a work of art that he hoped would help him jump-start a fledgling career. When he started he may have known that success was within his reach but he never could have imagined that Walt Disney can become a global brand, known all over the planet even among people that cannot speak the English language.
The success of the Disney brand has its shares of critics and fans alike. Critics are uncomfortable when it comes to Disney’s influence as a dispenser of knowledge and shaper of culture and politics. Although, the influence of Walt Disney is beyond argument its pedagogy is limited because Disney is more of a source of knowledge rather than a teacher shaping the minds of the future generation.
A basic understanding of pedagogy is the process of teaching and learning. Teachers need to understand this concept very well in order to increase the efficiency of their teaching method and to achieve learning. Those who are not aware of the importance of pedagogy continue to spend time discussing and performing activities that are believed to be related to teaching but the impact of such actions could not be considered a successful process in terms of the goals set beforehand.
It is interesting to point out that a significant number of scholars have used the terms Disney and pedagogy together in one sentence. Their contribution can be seen in the way they ignited the consciousness of the general public regarding the true intents and purposes of Walt Disney as a mass-market oriented and profit-generating organization. However, their criticism must be balanced by the appreciation heaped by millions of people who demonstrated their love for the brand by purchasing anything related to Disney – from films to apparel.
If Mr. Walt Disney is alive today and somebody approach him to say that he has created one of the greatest teaching tools for mankind, he may reject the idea outright. His primary goal was to entertain, and make money while doing so, but it is unlikely that he created his company with the vision of teaching children all over the world the value of honesty, perseverance, courage, forgiveness etc.
But the argument can be made persistent by reminding him about the achievements and significance of the company in the 21st century as seen in the following:
The Walt Disney Company not only makes movies and runs the world’s various Disneylands, it owns the Disney Channel and a TV station, it records music and publishes books, it buys books to make into movies that are shown on its cable channel and it licenses and produces songs and stories to publishers (Bell & Haas, p.6).
Walt Disney may argue that all of the above are just indirect consequences of creating highly-entertaining products. But a counter-argument can be easily produced by pointing out that in 1988 the company acquired Childcraft which is a company that manufactures educational toys (Bell & Haas, p.7).
At the same time Disney is a major sponsor of the Teacher of the Year Awards as well as offers free admission to Florida school children during lean months so that they can soak in the sights and sounds of their theme park located at Orlando, Florida (Bell & Haas, p.7). This significant capability to influence school children has prompted many observers to remark that Walt Disney can be considered as a special type of public school system (Bell & Haas, p.7).
Disney’s Teaching Style
The core content of Disney products from films to theme parks are elements that can be found in classic folk and fairy tales. The originals may have come from Europe and other parts of the world but today there is no other version more well-known and better received than those created by the company. This assertion is especially true in the United States.
Other organizations can emulate what Disney had accomplished but the success of the company can be traced to the clever use of sanitization, adaptation and Americanization that when combined together would yield a process known by critics as disneyfication (Wasko, p.113). Disneyfication as a byproduct of Hollywood made it easier for the company to build a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
If it is true that Walt Disney as an organization is directly influencing the mind of little children through the release of their products then the company succeeded because of the creation of films and animated features that are interesting, have great entertainment value but highly predictable.
The films and cartoons usually contain humor and music. As mentioned earlier the stories are heavily edited with a great dose of “Disneyfication” where the characters are “anthropomorphized, neotenized animal characters; formulaic heroes and sidekicks with stereotypical representations of gender and ethnicity” (Wasko, p.114). For instance, Mickey Mouse is not a real depiction of a mouse because it is a character that is lovable and kind as opposed to a vermin that can bite and carry diseases.
A major criticism of Disney is that there is no depth to it and it is nothing more than a mechanism that was constructed to make money. Thus, the common complaint of critics is that the output is nothing but a “high tech visual space where adventure and pleasure meet in a fantasy world of possibilities and a commercial sphere of consumerism and commodification” (Grioux, p.101). The value of this type of criticism can be appreciated from the point of view of artists and original thinkers.
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Aside from the negative view stemming from the argument that the company is a greedy mass marketer of low-quality entertainment the other complaint comes from those who prefer classical works as opposed to what is fashionable and popular. This includes historians, literary experts, and defenders of high-culture.
For instance, they are quick to point out Pinocchio did not originate from the studios of Disney but from the pen of Carlo Collodi and in the original version the author created a social deviant, a Pinocchio living in the a world that is “ruthless, joyless, filled with hypocrites, liars, and cheats” (Bell & Haas, p.68). One way to interpret their disapproval is the clamor for films that are based on originals and not scripts that are highly sanitized.
Critics seem to be unhappy with the fact that Disney’s creativity knows no bounds. History, culture and art are boundaries that are sacred to them. Their argument makes a lot of sense to a college professor or philosopher but may sound confusing to a parent.
If one would adhere to the ideas of the critics then Disney should be forced to create highly artistic films that are not guaranteed commercial successes but can contribute greatly to the education of the people.
However, parents would not allow their 3-year old child to watch a movie about English settlers blowing the heads of American Indians with the title: Pocahontas. It is just a matter of common sense that Disney has to modify the story so that children can enjoy it.
Those who criticize the outputs of Disney do so with the claim that the company can be compared to a “public school system” that is easily accessible and highly influential with the only difference that children and families had to pay for the learning experience. With this perspective in mind they argue that Disney should discontinue its use of “disneyfication” when it comes to modifying folk tales and fairy tales.
But it can be argued that they are wrong in two levels. First of all Disney does not consciously educate the masses. Secondly, not everything stamped with the Disney logo can create a negative effect on the lives of people. With regards to the argument that Disney is not actively educating the masses, consider the following definition:
Pedagogy is the professional knowledge of the teacher, and the enacted practice of teaching, set within the context of theories of human development and learning, cultural reproduction and transformation, political and social progress and intellectual engagement …. centered on nature of learning; sources of knowledge; and role of the teacher (Anderson, p.2).
This definition of pedagogy clearly states that pedagogy has three major components: a) teacher, b) source of knowledge; and c) learning process. It can be argued that Disney as a company is not the teacher and cannot dictate the learning process. Thus, Disney is nothing more than a significant source of knowledge. Although Disney sponsors an award for teachers, the company has no direct control over the teachers.
The second major weakness of the critics’ argument is the refusal to give credit to whom credit is due. The opponents of Disney fail to comment on the positive impact of the company to the lives of people.
There has been so much weight given on the power and influence of Disney over the general public that there has been little discussion regarding the fact that customers and consumers also play a key role in shaping the products that came out of Disney studios. In other words, Disney has to consider the inputs of customers making it unlikely that Disney has complete and total control of the artistic process.
Disney is one of the most influential companies in the world today because it has products that can affect the worldview of children regarding morality, a sense of fair play and the values needed to help build a strong community. But the company is not actively pursuing the role of a teacher. A careful analysis of the core elements of pedagogy would reveal that the company is merely a source of knowledge and not the one who facilitates the learning process.
It is the parents and teachers in school that facilitate learning and they simply use products from Disney as a source of knowledge. Even if they keep on watching Mulan, Snow White, and Pinocchio, the stories would not make sense unless a teacher comes in and talks about the importance of honor, humility, and honesty. Disney simply provides the materials and nothing more.
Anderson, Philip. Pedagogy Primer. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009.
Bell, Elizabeth & Lynda Haas. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Giroux, Henry. Breaking in to the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics. MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.