Teaching children how to see TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.

Nobody foresaw the ``totally powerful influence'' TV would come to have, he says. By 1978, TV had made ``culture itself experimental and gratification-oriented.'' In such a climate, he wrote in ``Teaching as a Conserving Activity,'' it was important that schools conserve time-honored means of discourse, study, inquiry, and a ``word-centered view of the world.'' These were the means of ``knowing oneself,'' of developing thought. The habit of watching a screenful of images could not do this. How David Letterman `breaks the frame'

Such ideas caused Postman to be labeled a ``back-to-basics visionary'' in the education world. It wasn't more math and science he was stressing. The real basics, he said, ``have to do with establishing a questioning mind.'' Educators today recognize in this '79 book much of what is now being called the ``critical thinking skills'' movement in American schools.

The problem with TV, Postman explains, is precisely that it doesn't ask viewers to be critical. It asks only that you stay tuned. TV rarely questions itself.

That's what Postman likes about NBC's ``Late Night'' host David Letterman. ``All his humor pokes fun at the media.'' Letterman does wild things with the camera, makes TV ``seem strange.''

``In his peculiar, zany way, Letterman tries to show how absurd conventional TV really is. He tries to `break the frame' of the television screen,'' Postman says. ``That's really the most important task for schools today - to break the screen for the youngster.''

It's exactly for this reason that Postman feels TV shows like ``Sesame Street'' and ``The Electric Company'' undermine genuine schooling. ``They pretend to be an ally of education.'' But rather than ``break the screen,'' he says, such shows tie children to it. Inadvertently teaching children to love TV

``Sesame Street'' was described as a breakthrough when it first aired in 1968, Postman remembers. Children would learn math and spelling from puppets and a big yellow bird. Learning would be entertaining.

Such shows, however, have not encouraged children to love school, says Postman. They've encouraged children to love TV.

``We now know,'' he says, ``that `Sesame Street' encourages children to love school only if school is like `Sesame Street.''' Traditional study and expression are trivialized: ``I don't think it will help make the young more intelligent for schools to become replicas of TV shows.''

Though sounding conservative, Postman is no traditionalist. His small desk, situated at one end of a very large, shabby graduate student lounge, is a kind of ``happening.'' People cluster; and Postman informally holds forth - part media guru, part New York impresario of ideas new and different. Marhall McLuhan, Postman's intellectual mentor, had the same style, say observers (causing one to sardonically remark that Postman's persona seems ``perfect for TV''). Importance of apprehending how we apprehend

But where McLuhan did groundbreaking work in describing the ``medium as the message'' (McLuhan felt what people watched on TV was of lesser importance than that they watched), Postman feels TV today has evolved to the point where society must be more conscious about the role it plays in informing - or disinforming - us about who we are. We must apprehend how we apprehend, Postman say.

Here, schools of education play an important role.

``Teachers must learn how to show children that TV is not reality, but only one way of looking at reality,'' Postman notes. Children should grow up knowing that.

Considering the power of the image in American culture today, Postman admits that improving the way children learn won't be easy. ``But as someone who essentially thinks of himself as an educator, I have this idiotic faith that if you can identify a problem you can, at the very least, make things better.''

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