We've grown all too accustomed to the idea that Johnny can't read. A Time cover story has just documented another gloomy slogan: "Teacher can't teach." But are we really ready for the latest bad news? According to a study sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Johnny and teacher and practically everybody else in the country lack even the competence to grasp what they see and hear on television.
In 12 major cities 2,700 people were shown two 30-second videotapes. Sometimes the subject was a commercial. Sometimes it was a news clip. Sometimes it was a scene from programs like "Charlie's Angels" or "Barnaby Jones." The viewers were then asked six simple true-and-false questions about each tape.
Nearly 30 percent of a total of 32,400 questions were answered incorrectly. Only 3.5 percent of the test-takers got all 12 answers right. Your average responder misunderstood one-quarter to one-third of what he or she saw.
And this occurred when everybody, presumably, was paying attention.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress tells us that the achievements of 17-year-olds in writing, in mathematics, in history have been declining steadily over the past ten years. A New York Times headline of a week or so ago casually announced: "25 percent in Sophomore Year at City U. Fail a Basic-Skills Testing Program." One hears routinely of high school graduates -- and indeed college graduates -- who are judged to be functionally illiterate.
What does all this have to do with the fact that we do not seem to be very good at receiving audio-visual messages either?The truth is, television has an effect on the way all of us grasp -- comprehend -- everything. Television is turned on in the typical American household more than six hours a day. By the time American children reach 18 they have watched an average of 15,000 hours of television -- far more hours than they have spent in the classroom.
Television has become the prevailing form of communication. We log in all this practice at it. And still we don't get it. The messages fly past us.
Writing in New York magazine, William Wolf observes that television has produced a diferent breed of moviegoers: the viewers who chat as if they were watching the tube in their own living room. What kind of readers, then, does it produce?
There is something famously half-attentive -- lotusland -- about the way we watch TV. Semi-reclining, one pseudo-watches, one pseudo-listens, and one drifts. Images float over one's passive consciousness like a green sea.
Television can be the nearest thing to sleep.
Do we carry our habits of perception (and our lax muscles) from the TV room to the classroom -- to life? Does our low-level effort at comprehension -- dim as a night light -- finally fall below even the mental requirements of television entertainment? Like teeth grown used to soft food, must we be fed ever softer food in a declining cycle toward mush?
There is, of course, no single explanation for the flagging of a certain alertness -- for our increasing failure to catch on. But maybe we should consider the possibility that we cannot get things straight because we cannot find the words -- a predicament that audiovisual aids and computers stuffed with information may only make worse.
As Richard Mitchell ("The Underground Grammarian") has pointed out in his book, "Less Than Words Can Say": "A line runs from the meditations of the heart to the words of the mouth. The meditations are not clear to us until the mouth utters its words. If what the mouth utters is unclear or foolish or mendacious, it must be that the meditations are the same. But the line runs both ways. The words of the mouth will becomem the meditations of the heart, and the habit of loose talk loosens the fastenings of our understanding."
This is why the meditating heart sinks a little when a commentator on the scores of the television test pronounces them to be "overwhelming evidence of built-in errors in the comprehensive process."
That says -- or rather, doesn'tm say -- it all.