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Teaching children how to see TV

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 1986

New York

Ask Neil Postman what the greatest need in education is today, and he'll say it's for teachers to help make children more conscious of the ``world view'' and habits of thought they are learning from television - and to offer them alternatives. TV has become such an integral part of children's lives that an entire generation is now growing up believing that TV is part of ``the natural order - like trees or clouds,'' said the celebrated author and educator in his New York University office recently.

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For children uninstructed in the way television ``frames reality,'' Dr. Postman continued, TV today is no longer simply a benign distraction - but something actually ``hostile'' to learning.

``The great educators - from Cicero on down - have all taught that the purpose of education and schooling is to free children from the tyranny of the present; to help them see beyond the immediate,'' he adds. ``TV works just the other way.''

Because TV reduces complex thoughts and ideas to mere images; because its sole operational criterion is ``entertainment value''; because it demands no historical background as a key to understanding; and finally, because it does the thinking for passive viewers - TV is ``by its very nature opposed to what the true idea of education is all about,'' Postman says.

Coming from Postman, these views are not surprising. In the past year, the NYU professor of ``media ecology'' has received national attention for his best-seller, ``Amusing Ourselves to Death'' (Viking Penguin), which he describes as a ``lamentation'' over the American abuse of media technology.

The most important development in the second half of the 20th century is that ``TV has become the command center of the culture,'' he says. The problem is that Americans don't seem to see the danger this poses to the ``rational, analytic discourse a sober society must live and work by.'' The form of TV limits the content.

``TV serves us most usefully,'' he writes, ``when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse - news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion.''

Postman is fond of presenting the absurd scenario in which a modern newscaster, such as Barbara Walters or Sam Donaldson, gives Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas five minutes to discuss the question of slavery, when their debates took five hours. Modern leaders, he says, are asked to sum up the Mideast in less time than that.

Though he's come to be identified as a spokesman on media and culture, Postman's life work has been in the field of education. He told the Monitor that the intellectual underpinnings of ``Amusing Ourselves'' were actually worked out in his 1979 book, ``Teaching as a Conserving Activity.''

That book, in turn, was a response to ``Teaching as a Subversive Activity,'' a hugely controversial 1967 title that is now a standard work in schools of education across the country.

In that book, Postman and educator Charles Weingartner argued that American public schools had become a wasteland of bureaucracy and standardized curricula, and that if schools were to have any vitalizing impact, teachers, behind the closed doors of their classrooms, needed to throw away the old rules and methods.

By the late 1970s, Postman's views had changed. He still agreed with the idea of ``waking up'' students in classrooms, but felt the cultural circumstances now demanded a different approach.