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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Neil-ing the Problem of the All-Consuming TV "Family" on Family Literacy Day

Okay, the title is admittedly a little corny. But the subject matter is a serious one. Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 1985) deserves mention and review again--20 years since its publication--for all its refreshing and pressing relevance to the state of our society today. The eve of the 6th annual Family Literacy Day in Canada is probably a good time to post a few thoughts on the issue of how the replacement of the printed word by television is affecting the way we think and communicate.

Postman's main thesis is that American society has moved from an age where the written word was dominant to one which is dominated by television and show business--to its detriment, in the decline of serious and rational thought and conversation. Every medium and technology has its own inherent bias and encourages certain tendencies. Just as the written/printed word promotes sequential, coherent and rational thought expressed in propositional form and calls for the reader's understanding and consideration of its argument, hones a tolerance for delayed response and so on, television places far less emphasis on rational argument and promotes the idea that the worth of anything is measured chiefly by its entertainment value. "Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television." (Postman, p. 87)

Ironically, the problem is often made worse by the supposed champions of literacy and education--teachers and intellectuals--who constantly strive to make television an educational tool par excellence, who urge television to be more of a carrier of important cultural conversations, which is something its form was not made to do. Given the right kind of training through the medium of television, increasingly and in too many places promoted, it will be little wonder if future generations become less able to read, and less interested in doing so. What's the great loss in this, some may ask, since television is able to do so much in way of providing information on all areas of life from politics to law to raising public awareness of the world around us? And aren't we forgetting the educational benefits of the internet (in which this blog itself is posted)? If the TV and computer can give our children information given in books, what's the harm? Firstly, it's highly questionable if all kinds of knowledge currently (or should be) taught in schools using books can be taught through television. Many things, like political philosophy and epistemology, are just not "eminently televisable" (ibid., p. 152). Secondly, Sesame Street, the oft-touted prime example of how learning can be both fun and effective, has not taught children to love school as much as it has taught them to love school that is like Sesame Street. It doesn't even matter if children do learn the alphabet from such television programs; more crucially, they are learning the "supra-ideology" of entertainment.

Postman nailed the problem of television when he writes about the comprehensiveness and the potential that it is commonly perceived to have. It is a medium that encompasses all forms of discourse, one from which anyone can learn about the most recent policies, find out who won the ball game, enjoy some light-hearted entertainment, and find out more about the current affairs or the latest scientific discoveries. One big reason why the printed word took such a hold on people's lives and minds in earlier times is the monopoly it had--there was literally no other alternative medium with that kind of reach. Today we have a media and information glut where much that is produced and consumed is largely influenced by the dominant medium of the colourful, seductive moving picture. Even from the time of Postman's writing, books have begun to take on the forms and the language of television--in easily digestible eye-candy morsels. Think of the recently published New Testament for teens entitled Revolve in which each page resembles a glossy fashion magazine complete with tips on dating and makeup. Revolve does contain the entire text of the New Testament, but will it really promote a love for His Word and the holy lifestyle that is commanded therein? I personally doubt it can, although God can work good through anything.

At the end of the day, there is a vast and undeniable difference between reading the printed word and watching television. The differences are many and a few important ones have been stated, or at least implied. I shall not try to enumerate an exhaustive list of differences or give a comprehensive argument for the benefits of the printed word over those of television. Much has already been written on this, and Postman has done a job that I could never do trying to explain how our (I'm identifying with Postman here-) position is not merely another "elitist complaint against 'junk' on television" (ibid., p. 16). There are many benefits to television, and we're not denying that--but perhaps not so much for education, and perhaps the losses outweigh the gains in the final analysis. All is not lost though, and some television programs, in small, carefully administered doses, may on occasion provide a useful material for classroom learning and discussion. "But what is happening is that the content of a school curriculum is being determined by the character of television ... One would have thought that the school room is the proper place for students to inquire into the ways in which media of all kinds--including television--shape people's attitudes and perceptions." (ibid. pp. 153)

Just another word on TV using Ray Bradbury's TV "family" as an illustration. In Fahrenheit 451 (Del Rey, 1987), the protagonist's wife and her friends are hopelessly addicted to their multi-panelled TV--a kind of surround-sound, surround-screen TV which envelopes them, commanding their facile participation in shallow and inconsequential conversations and situations presented by life-sized soap opera characters who become their "family". This is obviously an exaggeration of what our TV experiences are like but illustrate well the point I wish to make. TV has the power to influence you in very subconscious ways, making you captive to its continuously changing images and sounds, and tempting you to suspend your rational thought processes to simply absorb what is presented in unrelenting speed and in forms which are not for the most part amenable to careful analysis and evaluation in the way words on a page are. A TV program you choose to watch consumes you, and good books (like classic novels) are often said to do the same, but you read at your own pace, and the words on the page engage your reason and understanding.

It seems ironic that a made-for-TV movie televised nationally during primetime should be what kick-started Family Literacy Day in Canada in 1999. It is also ironic that this movie should be made a publicity centrepiece by literary organisations who helped promote it by distributing posters and bookmarks to the general public. "Penny's Odyssey is about the agony and ecstasy of growing up as much as it is about reading and writing," says director Alan Goluboff. "Even people who can read will sympathize with the characters and find the program engaging." Am I the only one who finds the last sentence more than a little strange and telling?

Penny's Odyssey is the one thing parents seem to be encouraged to order on that webpage, and quite plausibly the one thing that most who would celebrate FLD would want to watch with their children. "Read, Write, Surf, Sing" goes the motto of FLD. They forgot "Watch." (ibid. p. 161) To be fair, my knowledge of FLD is all but most recently acquired and limited. And, as Postman says, "no medium is excessively dangerous is its users understand what its dangers are." But do they? Will most of the people this literacy campaign is targetting be sufficiently aware that there is an inevitable relation between form and content? It is possible that Penny's Odyssey will excite some children a little more about reading, but I am not optimistic. I have not watched Penny's Odyssey and so cannot much more about it, but I do not think I'll be in a hurry to get a copy. All the same, I wish the organisers of the ABC Canada Family Literacy Day all the best.

When God blesses my husband and I with a baby to bring up and teach, he or she will surely not be learning the alphabet from Winnie-the-Pooh video series or the numbers from Sesame Street. "Train up a child in the way he should go, / Even when he is old he will not depart from it." ~ Proverbs 22:6


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