Cronkite and the classroom -- The way it might be

One day Dr. Paul Saltman's students at the University of California sat down for the midterm examination in Natural Science 1C, and found themselves reading part of the morning paper. One of the questions was drawn form a news article in that day's Los Angeles Times.

"I do Mort Sahl in the classroom" Dr. Saltman said. "I come on with the newspaper, a nd suddenly I'm not some bore asking my students to memorize the base pairs of DNA. I'm showing them that DNA turns up in the newspaper; it's real; it's out there, and they can learn about it by paying attention for awhile."

Comedian Mort Sahl carries a newspaper on stage because he finds nothing to rival current events for absurdity and humor. And if Dr. Saltman, the biochemist , uses the newspaper too, it's because he's conviced that students can be led into the deep end of learning by seeing how close it is to the shallows.

Daily news, addling headlines, articles about insects outwitting insecticides , diets outwitting dieters -- these topics and the way they are presented can be powerful teaching tools, Dr. Saltman believes. He and six or seven other academicians, together with some people from the world of TV, including Walter cCronkite, want to extend the use of these tools with television.

Satellite Education Services, a non-profit corporation with Cronkite as board chairman, would produce a televised news/learning program for high schools throughout the country. Each program would examine a news story found in the morning's paper or on radio. An academic expert, or an expert from business, government, or the professions would talk about the story in the light of his specialized knowledge and insight.

Most of these experts would have been given screen tests to assure their uniqueness comes through on television.

Since the programs would be aired through the commercial-free Public Broadcasting Service, Dr. Saltman and some of the other orgainzers say the shows couldn't be compared to educationa programs on commercial TV.

"We're not competing for a share of the market with this program," said Dr. Saltman in his office at the University of California at San Diego (floor-to-ceiling books next to floor-to-ceiling windows). "The teacher can always turn the show off. The show itself is not mandated. Our only control [in attracting an audience] is to be so relevant, so interesting, so stimulating that teachers and students will want to learn from it."

One of Dr. Saltman's associates at UCSD added that the television project "has propelled us into a new market -- if you don't mind the use of that term -- and that is the market of the high school student."

The format of the show -- whether it should be 20 minutes long or half and hour --and a hundred other details have not been settled. It doesn't even have a name. Dr. Saltman wants to call it "The Way It Is," from the phrase Cronkite has used for years to close the CBS Evening News. But beither he nor Cronkite can say offhand who wons the phrase -- Cronkite or CBS.

Cronkite says it doesn't matter: his involvement with satellite education will be strictly separate from his work at CBS. He says he does not intend to appear on the educational program, before or after his retirement; and from the beginning his only role has been to lend the project his name.

His letter announcing the project went out to the chief executives of 140 American foundations and corporations. Last spring, he attended an orgainzation meeting at the PBS Washington headquarters. (Employees stood in doorways to watch him walk down the hall.)

And recently in Miami he fascinated the Nationa Association of Secondary School Principals' convention with an account of the Iranian crisis as seen from his newsroom desk. He added that high school students might enjoy this kind of background account. It could be presented to them in a daily television program that brought them news events, together with insights on those events from the nation's foremost thinkers and teachers.

The programs would be distributed via channels that PBS has leased on Western Union's Westar II satellite. This marvelous device, which is roughly the size of a canoe and had a halo-like antenna of gold, is falling around the earth at the same speed that the globe is spinning, so that it remains stationary in the sky above the equator, at a longitude even with Dallas.

Although its dark-blue solar panels supply it with only 300 watts of power (equal to that used by, say, a couple of floor lamps), the satellite receives microwaves beamed up from a point on earth, amplifies them, and sprays them down again over an area broader than the continent. Anybody living in the United States who has about $20,000 to spare can buy and operate an antenna and the related equipment, and pick up the satellite's television signals.

But an ordinary television set will do as well, since the PBS stations have been outfitted to catch the signals and rebroadcast them.

If the Westar II, and PBS, and Cronkite's Satellite Education Services, and high schools work together perfectly, this is what could happen:

Say the hostages in Iran are liberated. It's the biggest story in the news -- probably the only one that day -- and the SES editors, conferring by telephone from various parts of the country during the late afternoon, decide to go with a hostages-package on the next morning's program. Boston's public station is to collect and edit a visual news briefing on the story, using material from Visnews and other television news services. An editor looks over a list of experts who have agreed to appear on the program (for a few hundred dollars per show). Not accidentally, almost evreyone on his list lives near Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, or Chicago -- academic centers with access, or "uplink ," to Westar II. The editor's choice is a political scientist from George Washington University, who receives notice before he leaves for the day, so that he has the night to dream of what to say.

The next morning, at the PBS Washington studio, the political scientist steps onto the set, talks to the cameras, or perhaps to an interviewer. Technicians will join up his taped presentation with the news briefing prepared in Boston, and with all the special misic, titles, etc., that belong to any TV show. Then the complete program on the hostages is broadcast via satellite throughout the country, and rebroadcast by the local public stations.

It will be shown to children at schools like Wilson High in East Los Angeles, which has its own television studio, capable of taping the program off the air and distributing it to classrooms any time in the school day.

Finally, the show might be repeated in the evening to a general audience at home.

All of this assumes an enormous amount of cooperation (not to mention equipment) in the classreeom, anad the creation of a rather complex network of informational switchyards. Already some limitations are showing up. Because it takes so many technicians to handle a show at any of the five uplink locations, a few days' notice will probably be needed before a program can be produced. So shows would probably have to be produced according to a schedule by location: Monday in Washington, Tuesday in New York, et cetera.

And teachers can be given only short notice about the subject of a program. So instead, a schedule of general topics might be arranged: science and Monday, history on Tuesday, and so on.

The truth is, no one knows how the programs will work, because none has been produced yet. A pilot series was supposed to have been aired in March, but SES could raise only %50,000 (from General Motors), and needs another $60,000 to fill its preliminary budget. If all goes well, the pilots should go on the air in October and the regular series begin next January, the beginning of the second semester.

The series would cost about $2 million for a full academic year.

Dr. May Walshok, a sociologist who has become involved with SES through her administrative work at UCSD, says the spirit of the project belongs to the people who relish its technology.

"If education people were running and energizing this project," she says, "we would be more concerned with preparation, with studies, with finding out beforehand how we think this is going to affect students. If we are to be faulted, it's in not thinking whether anyone really wants this. It's a terrific idea, but we don't know yet whether anyone will use it, or need it."

Asked if the project did indeed amount to pushing a button because it is there, cronkite said, "No -- no,. . .that's a hundred and eighty degrees off." He cleared his throat. "The idea has been kicking around in my mind for years, and I was sounding off about it for ten years, anyway, since my children were in school, when I saw the need for a relevancy, a relationship between current affairs and the various academic disciplines. . .

"The idea is to bring the nation's greatest minds, its finest pedagogues, into the classroom to elucidate the events of the day, so that, for example, a mathematics class is suddenly not just another hour to study numbers, but a lesson from an economist in how these numbers are used in the world of oil, of dollars, and of gold."

He added that the programs should not be too slick, in the sense of concentrating too much on "the quality of the audio-visual presentation. I think that a successful teacher [when televised to the classroom] can still hold a student's attention by the power of his presentation. I hope that is the case. Because that is what we have to show people -- that a great teacher, through television, can supply the vital link between the world of news and the world of learning."

In the early 1930s, when Cronkite was a student at San Jacinto High School in HOuston, scientists were just perfecting the basic devices of television (the electronic scanner in particular). Now the journalism teacher at that same high school (which has since been renamed the Barbara Jordan Technical Institute) uses television to quiz her students on current events.

"They're interested in the draft right now," said Mildred Marbley, one day after school. "You don't have to force students to learn about things that are already a concern to them and their lives. Most of the time, of course, the students don't see the relevance of school and the world outside. At this school in particular, they're here to acquire a skill that will get them into the world and working. As far as academics go, they say, "Why do we need them?"

"I myself try to relate studies to the world that's real to them. At the moment I am teaching a government class, and I may say to a student, 'Okay, if you don't answer me, I am going to come up and slap your glasses off.' And the student says, 'You can't do that.'

"And I say, 'Why not?'

"Because you're not allowed.'

"'And what if I slap you anyway?'

"Then the student says, 'I could sue you.'


"And this leads into a discussion of government protection, and criminal proceedings involved in an assault, and civil proceedings involved in a suit. I find that students need just a little suggestion to show that the things they learn in the class are really the things they learn in the world. It's just like the proverb: 'He that knows, annd knows not that he knows, is a child.' In a sense, we're trying to tell these kids about the world they already know."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Cronkite and the classroom -- The way it might be
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today