Commentary

Choosing the Tube and Expanding the Mind (Up to 17 Square Inches)

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The Wall Street Journal recently reported the results of an experiment undertaken by fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in one Ridgewood, N.J., elementary school--the students did not watch television for an entire week.

The experiment is neither novel nor surprising, but its effects are very significant. "... some parents in this predominantly educated, professional town of 26,000 supported the project; but may others turned out to be as hooked on electronic entertainment as their offspring." These parents insisted upon keeping the television on even during dinner, forcing some children to eat in their rooms or on the cellar steps.

We shouldn't be surprised that a generation of television viewers who watched over 15,000 hours by high-school graduation has continued its habits into adulthood and family life. That some homes have two, three, or even four television sets turned on for five or six hours a day is far from startling. And we all know that children today spend comparable hours in front of "Sesame Street," "General Hospital," and even the more daring shows available on cable. For years, teachers have bemoaned the fact that, as a result, children's imaginations seem to be, as Stan Freberg once noted, expandable up to 17 inches.

No, what is surprising about this experiment is that the parents in some of these households chose the tube over being with their children. Their daily routines evidently have become so intertwined with the fortunes of Luke and Laura, Dan Rather, and J.R. Ewing that a modest challenge from the students to live our lives using our own resources and imaginations goes unheeded. Some of us have become so embedded in our routines, so responsive to external stimuli, that we have lost what John Dewey called our "plasticity," that childlike ability to think and act flexibly when confronted with novel situations.

Of even greater significance is the fact that during this suburban experiment, which could be replicated in urban areas as well, some of the children began to ask their parents questions. Perhaps this was the real novelty. But one parent responded, "Go clean up your room," and another just kept watching "Hart to Hart." I wonder how many families used this opportunity to sit down and talk with each other about the events of the day, books they had read, or questions they had always pondered.

An English teacher I know once told me about sitting around the dinner table every night as a child where he was expected, together with his two young sisters, to discuss something important that had occurred during the day. His father continually probed and prodded him into lengthier explanations and deeper understandings of his activities. And his sisters always related something from books they had been reading. Here, he noted, is where his own love of reading began to be nurtured. He wanted to explore the same kinds of mysteries and adventures.

"My Dinner with Andre," the Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory film, depicts two adults who have developed such conversing into real dialogue, where divergency is treasured because it leads us to open those inner worlds made so remote by habit, conventional and cliché-ridden thinking, and fear.

It may seem that television, like a good text book, instructs, and so it can to a degree. But we do not learn the most fundamental skills of life--thinking, responding with empathy and dialogue--by watching someone else perform them on the screen or by reading about them in a book. We learn them by confronting life's concerns at any age and, quite often, thinking together with other persons. There is no substitute in these situations for a caring, curious parent or teacher for whom the ideas and feelings of others, especially the young, appear like newly discovered galaxies in the astronomer's glass.

Children in isolation from one another can memorize the television script or the textbook. But without such patient nurturing by adults, can they imagine the solar system from the perspective of the sun as Copernicus did? Can they think themselves into a chromosome as the Nobel Prize winner, Joshua Lederberg, did? Or can they "see the world in a grain of sand" as William Blake did? Can they, in other words, behave contrary to certain elements of the New Right, to follow John Keats's advice to make the mind "a thoroughfare for all thoughts"?

When asked how progress is made in science, Jacob Bronowski replied: "By this constant adventure of taking the closed system and pushing its frontiers imaginatively into the open spaces where we shall make mistakes." Imagination, openness, and mistakes are essential to the process. Surely turning off the television creates those open spaces where we have new opportunities to step out of rigid routines and to discover some of life's mysteries and meanings together. We push beyond the known and the obvious only by questioning, but being told to "Go clean up your room" may extinguish that imaginative spark that separates us from those we left upon the dry African savanna.

Vol. 01, Issue 21, Page 19

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