Thursday, August 21, 2008

Educational TV


“Kids just don’t know how to work,” I hear my friends complain. They have no desire to learn nor do many of them have the desire to do much of anything beyond staring at some kind of screen, complain the teachers.

The first teacher professional book I ever read was The Disappearance of Childhood by Neal Postman where the author points out that prior to television, adults were the storehouses of knowledge and (hopefully) at least a little wisdom. Responsible adults would pass this learning along to children at the appropriate time and childhood was one long apprenticeship to adulthood. How to use a chain saw, fire a weapon, cook a goose, lessons were given on a need to know basis, complete with new words and real reasons to learn. Life and death issues taught as they came up.

Such was the way of learning throughout the ages, Postman pointed out, right up to the advent of the television. Some might argue that it really started with the Little Rascals, but I suspect those shows were not created just to entertain kids, and were certainly not developed to be a vehicle for selling products to kids. That came later.

Of course words, reading, and books factored into the learning process. But this type of learning was also scaffolded in accordance with the maturity of the kid, the difficulty of the text precluding most second graders from mastery of quantum physics at the corner library even IF (big if) the librarian let would allow the kid into the adult section.

So, along came television, effectively changing the direction of the knowledge stream. And within a couple of generations of sitcoms, Roseanne, Archie Bunker, and Maude came along to replace I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best as broadcast parents who dispensed knowledge with no deference to the viewer’s age or need to know. While parents were working somewhere out of the sights of their kids, kids took to learning on their own from fake parents first, and then simply from each other.

At some point, Madison Avenue went from being in the business of selling during breaks in the television shows to driving the programming for children. Can’t you just see the lightbulb going on over the pink power tie of some ad exec after a focus group for Sugar Pops.

PING! Kids don’t like parents around. Let’s take the parents out of these programs – kids will like the shows more and we can sell more cereal.

Bingo. The advent of the Disney channel, one of the most successful sales vehicles to traverse our screens. In shows such as The Suite Life and Hannah Montana, knowledge is imparted by peers. The vocabulary is limited, the topics narrow. Work is never modeled and viewers are never asked to stretch beyond what they already know.

Responsible parents restrict their children to this kind of programming thinking they are doing a good thing by not letting kids learn how to party hearty with a beer bong on MTV or commit a sex crime ala CSI.

But is it a good thing? Really? When the only adult role models students see in their fictional TV literature are ineffectual, plainly idiotic, or absent entirely, why are we surprised when our real life kids give us no respect? From three to six hours per day, PER DAY, kids are being schooled that adults are dumb and it is their peers who have all the smarts. The days and plots of their lives revolve around avoiding any interaction with adults.

I have this discussion with my daughters all the time. I know they think I’m annoying (and I probably am) complaining about the Disney channel, but there is something about my grandkids watching this programming that makes my teeth itch. The way they depict young women? The shallow values? The insular lives that rarely venture outdoors? This type of learning can never replace what adults can impart to kids.

It can be argued that television has replaced teachers and parents as the greatest educator, but even with the shows featuring murders and Springerized paternity tests blocked, what is most children’s programming really teaching kids except that adults are simply the straight guys and the joke is always on them?

Oh, I know the response – what the heck. That’s just the way it is. Yeah, it is. But up until about the last 30-50 years, guess what? That wasn’t the way it was. Kids actually learned from adults.

Am I getting old and cranky or what?

5 comments:

Kimberly said...

cranky? no. you are absolutely right. And I'm a "young" 39 years old.

michael salinger said...

well maybe a little cranky.

Christine said...

No, you're not old and cranky. You're just about spot on. And you write well about the issue. :) What do adults expect when they abdicate their responsibilities?

MamaD said...

I see it all the time in classrooms...kids don't think we know anything, nor do they care. I'll watch Disney channel more often to see what they're selling. We go for mindless Nick cartoons like Spongebob in our house

Sparroweye said...

I think to ban television and computers until high school would be a good thing. I am glad I lived on a deadend (when my kids were small) in a woods with a creek. It held a lot more allure than SpongeBob would. Back then it was Speed racer. My boys always wanted speed racer on. I think all those cartoon hero series in the 70's were Japanese made. My adopted daughter and I loved Captain Kangeroo. We both watched it together. We loved, "Tell me a story" Kimmie loved Mr. Rogers and would lovingly watch him look into her eyes from the t.v and say, "you are special, just the way you are" I wish I had said that more to her. I wrote an article about losing our childhood. The kids today never heard of rock/paper/scissors. Kootie Katchers made from paper. Never built their own tree house from scraps, never blew a seed head off like a rocket, and never probably learned to make a blade of grass whistle. (well I never managed that one either) It saddens me to see this generation. I watch my grandson on his tiny psp for hours. Movies rather than books. It's a lost generation.