Boston — The small child pronounces her name carefully and springs up four fingers to indicate her age. Then Laneeta proceeds to describe the horrible scenes she witnessed in her family room the night before. Staring blankly ahead, she reruns with the fidelity of a videocassette what she saw while her mother put the baby to bed and cleaned the house.
Murders and more murders. Wife abuse. Abortion. Homosexuality. Drunkenness. Automobile crashes. Plance crashes. Operating room emergencies. War. Monsters.
The vivid descriptions of TV episodes seemed incongruous with the preschool child relating them. Kneeling on an airport bench, freshly scrubbed, sporting a pink sunsuit and carefully woven braids, she rehearses for a stranger the 26 -inch diagonal violence that had ruthlessly usurped her imagination and thoughts , all while she lay curled up in the family room of her own home, avoiding bedtime.
Before they ever set foot in a classroom, children like Laneeta will have logged 5,000 hours in front of a television screen, according to experts. That barrage of adult fare, they say, has led to the disappearnace of childhood and has had a tremendous impact on the eduational process in America.
Newspapers, magazines, and radio have long played a trickle-down, largely passive role in education through current events exercises in class or brief contact with these purveyors of news and enntertainment outside the classroom. Children were slowly and deliberately exposed to the challenges of the larger world. But that delicate maturing process has been squashed by the big foot of television.
For many school-aged children, television ism the media. The images that flicker forth from the electronic box in the den or family room have come to dominate many childrens' formative years. By one estimate, between the ages of 6 and 18 the average American child will spend more time in front of a television than he or she spends in school -- 16,000 hours versus 13,000.
As an education tool, television is still taking its first infant steps. Meanwhile, the industry as a whole, now fully mature, is striding purposefully ahead toward what many critics see as new expanses off mediocrity. Only the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is making a concerted effort to transform television into an educational tool (see story, p. 3).
The vast educational potential of such television innovations as satellite broadcasting to third world farmers, student-produced cable broadcasts of local school board meetings, or tele-universities that provide courses over the air, remains largely that, potential. (Stories, p. 8).
"Never before in history has there been an educational tool as powerful as television, and never before has such a force been so often trivialized," says Michael R. Kelley, professor of English at George Mason University in Washington , D.C. and former director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
While some educators point an accusing finger at the networks, others believe the problem is not so much the broadcasters themselves as the way the television medium has come to be structured. Would any broadcasting company, they ask, act substantially different than NBC, ABC, or CBS, given the opportunity? The answer would appear to be no, since all three existing networks have charted roughly similar courses in terms of programming content and quality.
Carroll P. Cole, a professor of English at the University of New Haven, submits that the very nature of the television medium is the root cause of the decline not only in the level of English skills, but also in students' attitudes , aspirations, and even the quality of their lives.
"Reading has tended to be replaced by looking, and the thing being looked at is the screen or the tube. Pictures are pre-empting the place of words, and that's a bad thing Ffor us all," he says.
"There is retrogression towrd re-Gutenberg hieroglyphics: visual imagemaking on the screen and the tube. We have sold our post-Gutenberg heritage for less than a mess of pottage."
Neil Postman characterize the problem as a direct competition between television and schools, a competition the schools are losing. Writing in Phi Delta Kappan, the journal of professional educators, the professor of education in the department of Communication Arts and Science at New York University, states:
"What we are facing now is the rapid changeover from a culture organized around typography to a culture based on the electronic image. As a consequence, it is obvious that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the US is not happening in the classroom but in the home, in front of the television set -- not under the jurisdiction of school administrators and teachers but of network executives."
Mr. Postman groups his concerns about the negative effect of television on education into four categories:
* Television tends to weaken the abstracting powers of chiLDRENn by barraging them with visual images. A picture can only provide one with an example, he says, whereas a word gives a concept.
* Television is nondiscursive, meaning there is not give-and-take, only bland acceptance of what is flashed before one's eyes. A viewer may dislike a show, but he or she cannot refute it.
* Television viewing requires no skills and develops no skills.
* The entertainment-first, cntent-second nature of television places a burden on teachers because students come to expect education to be just as entertaining as television.
The theories of Mr. Postman and others are backed up by statistics. In 1982, in a ten-year update of the Surgeon General's report on television and violence, the National Institute for Mental Health pointed to a direct correlation between habitual viewing of television violence and actual aggressive behavior among children.
Other recent studies question the effect of television on children's IQ scores. Some of them suggest a link between television and declining attention spans and lack or socialization. A study being concluded at Yale University has found that children between the ages of seven and nine who are heavy viewers got 10 to 20 percent lower reading scores than children who watched less. (Story, p. 7)
Despite such findings, there does seem to be a vast store off potential good in the medium. Those who view television as a valuable, but largely unused, education tool break down roughly into two schools of thought: those who encourage the use of video-taped programs in a traditional classroom setting; those who would turn the tables on television and use the medium to neutralize its own negative effects.
The latter philosophy has generated the term "television literacy." Some educators believe it is vital to teach children how to view television critically, how to separate reality from fiction, how to weight the claims of advertisers. Some even make a point of showing how a camera angle can influence mood and opinion.
One component of television literacy is the production of television programs by the students themselves. Not only does such an exercise give the students a behind-the-scenes feel for television's illusory effect, but when combined with cable television, the student-produced programs can serve as a community service as well. (Story, p. 6).
What about the networks themselves? Perhaps they are not to blame for the bulk of television's negative impact, but what is the extent of their social responsibility to help educate the nation's youth, or at least not detract from what they arem being taught?
In the days of radio, network executives were testifying before Congress that there was no need to create educational broadcasting. They assured the federal government and the public that less than a third of all programming would be commerical in nature, according to Fred Friendly, Edward R. Morrow professor of Journalism at Columbia University and former president of CBS news.
"They have welched on the deal," he says. "It's as if Gutengerg had created the printing press and all we were turning out were comic books."