We have just finished a political campaign where it can be argued that the advantage went to those candidates who presented on television the most attractive image, and whose handlers packaged and presented the candidate through brief sound bites in a way that most effectively reflects the dreams and hopes of the public rather than a rational expression of policies the public agrees with. So far as governing our country, the lesson is that a person who does not have good looks will find it difficult to win election, and to win, the candidate and campaign staff must be able to think in sound bites and images that appeal to the emotions.
That our culture has changed drastically in the last century has been a common observation for some time as people decry the increasingly dominating culture based on television, and more recently, the rapid action of video games, grammarless text messaging and instant reactions on Internet blogs. Neil Postman's classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, was perhaps the best known early popularization of concern for the implications of this cultural change. Taking a page from Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is the Message, he traces how both public and private communications have been changed by a change in the dominant medium.
He observed that in the 19th century the printed word was the primary way people learned about ideas and events outside their personal experience. The printed word lent itself to long rational expositions on ideas, fostered refutation and rebuttal, and required active listening and long periods of concentration on the part of the listener in order to understand the complicated arguments or presentations. To participate in this medium required rational work on the part of the reader or listener, and required the ability to delay gratification. The medium of the printed word teaches the ability to concentrate, understand complex rational concepts from the written and spoken word, understand lessons from history, and learn to sit still in order to absorb complex concepts. Those very goals were and are a major focus of our education system from a century ago to the present.
The change today, the author asserts, is that television and the Internet now constitute the major way people learn about ideas and events outside their personal experience. He asserts this is a radically different medium from the printed word, not well suited to long expositions of complex ideas, and that history is not very relevant. It teaches the recipient to be passive, appeals primarily to emotions, and that anything important can be expressed in a one-minute sound bite, or at the most, a half hour dramatized event. Another important aspect is that the TV set can always be turned off or turned to another channel if a person feels it is not entertaining enough. Thus the title of his book. Instead of the child looking to learn rational thought, the child looks to be entertained. In this new culture, he asserts, if we do not find something entertaining, or worse yet, find it requires work, we tend to tune it out.
If we accept his theme, it exposes a major tension modern educators must work with. Our schools are still largely based on the medium of the written word that is presenting rational complex ideas which a student has to work at to learn. One must sit still long enough to be fully exposed to the subject matter, understand the progress of our culture and learn delayed gratification.
On the other hand, our students, trained by massive hours of TV viewing and Internet activity, come expecting to have their feelings fed by being entertained. They expect discontinuity and entertainment from rapid fire changes in subject matter with nothing important enough to concentrate on for more than a few minutes. What happened in the past is "too yesterday." They also are accustomed to instant gratification, used to being able to choose whatever entertainment they wish, while being passive recipients so long as it isn't boring.
This author's perspective might contribute to explaining why so many of our schools and programs in the private, residential parent-choice schools and programs see children who have behavioral/emotional problems. For example, Attention Deficit Disorder (with or without Hyperactivity) (ADD/H) is basically an inability to concentrate, a problem that could be predicted from a child heavily oriented to the emotional feed and the instant gratification of TV and/or computers. It seems almost all enrolled students in our network come with this ADD diagnosis.
In addition, many enrolled students are extremely self-centered, a trait that would logically come from students accustomed to having virtually complete control over how they are entertained, feeling they deserve to always be entertained and never be bored or work for anything. I have often heard the term "entitled generation" applied to these children. I have met many students who tell me they "hate to learn," but sometimes those same students could sit for hours figuring out a complex computer program or video game. These perhaps are only the students who have been most susceptible to the lure of the flat screen, which might explain why not all or even most of their peers do not have serious emotional/behavioral problems.
Good quality therapeutic and emotional growth schools and programs seem to have naturally addressed some of the unhealthy consequences of this modern medium. There is little TV in those schools and programs, limited Internet access, and most have significant elements of getting in touch with nature through wilderness treks, nature hikes and being located in rural areas. All of these remove the student's exposure to the TV medium, and eliminate those distractions so the child can get to know him or herself. The schools and programs are undermining the unhealthy aspects of massive TV, Internet and text messaging activity.
This might be a good lesson for parents who want to create a healthy environment in which to raise their children to consider. It might even reduce the chances of ever having to make a residential placement.
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