The Magazine


Jan 8, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 16 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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This is sheer self-deception. At its best, television is light entertainment. And anything that was not light entertainment before being translated into televisionese, like Masterpiece Theatre versions of literary classics, becomes light entertainment by the mere fact of appearing on it. Opera, ballet, serious drama, serious discussions, all approach the condition of soap opera when adapted for television. Occasionally, educated adults may profit by watching a lecture or a documentary, but even such "high-brow" programming is characteristically superficial and liberally livened up with the tricks of commercial entertainment.

And what, then, of children? They, who have no intellectual context in which to place the constant stream of moving images, will never gain anything of any educational use from it. For learning is never passive. Learning requires the active participation of the learner in answering questions, repeating or re- enacting what he has been told, and formulating out of reading and discussion a point of view that is not ready-made for him -- a point of view that is his own. But television is the passive medium. Recent studies suggest that even supposedly "interactive" computer learning is too passive an activity to have much in the way of measurable effects on children's learning. How much more instantly forgettable are the totally passive experiences of television?

To prove the point, watch a program like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which is meant to teach geography and history. The show features a routine chase cartoon of a bad guy (or in this case gal -- the titular Carmen Sandiego) pursued by a committee made up of a young man, a young woman, and an old man. The day I watched with my 9-year-old son, Carmen Sandiego stole some artifacts from the Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which allowed the show's producers to graft on some information about Santa Fe and the museum. My son watched in rapt attention. Afterwards he remembered the story but, when asked where it took place, he thought for a moment and then ventured: "Mexico?"

This is not (I say fondly) a stupid child. He merely takes from the succession of images presented to him that which its own logic has determined is important. In the same way, the internal logic of Sesame Street dictates that the songs and the sketches and the jokes occupy the 6 foreground while the "numbers and the letters are incidental. Why should we expect children to think these have more importance than the show itself attributes to them? The makers of these "educational" shows know that the educational substance has been relegated to an invisible background, but it is the fundamental premise on which they work: Kids will watch only if they don't know they're going to learn something.

Thus, the makers of educational television reveal themselves beholden to the most basic principle of educational theory of the last 60 or 70 years. Even before television, there was a dangerous tendency among the most highly regarded educators to turn schools into inferior amusement parks. Learning can be fun, they said; tear down the walls in schools, let the creativity of children run free, and all will be well.

It is certainly a nice idea, but it flies in the face of common experience: We all know that learning, particularly in its early stages, is actually painful. Happily, nature has made the most painful bits least painful to the young. Practicing scales is tedious in the extreme compared with playing Mozart, but it is less tedious to small children who don't yet know what Mozart is. Learning irregular verbs is an awful chore, but the irritation is more easily borne by those who are as yet innocent of the ambition to read Proust.

Along the way -- and here television played a crucial role -- the educational establishment altered its maxim from "learning can be fun" to " learning must be fun." It must be transmitted through computers, and through television sets, and through games -- must, in other words, be delivered by the same means that children receive their entertainment. And thus it short- circuited nature's way of preparing us for serious scholarship -- learning patience, and attentiveness, and the rewards that come from the careful perusal of a subject over time.

Few outside what William J. Bennett called "the education blob" believe the " education must be fun" theory has been anything short of a disaster. And still Washington is so committed to the idea that it feels compelled to require the broadcast of shows developed according to its assumptions. The idea that education al television isn't educational never comes up in public policy debates. And it should.