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To the Editor:

In responding to my original essay ("Whittling the School Day Away,'' Commentary, Dec. 1, 1993), Paul Folkemer and Renee Hobbs's "Refocusing the Channel One Debate'' (Commentary, Jan. 26, 1994) attempts to do precisely what their title implies, shift the focus and the debate. It's an old debating tactic to try to set forth a new agenda, more hospitable to one's own position, thereby avoiding the other side's arguments and the critical issues at hand. As the Church Lady used to ask on "Saturday Night Live,'' "Isn't that convenient?''

Many of the benefits that Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs see potentially accruing from Channel One would just as readily accrue from students watching the commercial-free CNN in the Classroom, yet they never mention this source nor do they ever acknowledge that the critical attraction for schools of Channel One is that it lends television to schools for free. By ignoring these facts they conveniently avoid the questions my essay raises about the proper sources for school funding and whether an advertiser such as Whittle Communications Inc. should be permitted to set any of the curricular standards in a school.

Nor do Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs ever answer what limits, if any, they'd place on the time devoted to required advertising in the schools. What reasonable recourse does a school have once Christopher Whittle gets his foot and his TV's in the door? Indeed, Mr. Whittle has recently increased Channel One's ads from 2 minutes to 2-1/2 minutes per day in some instances, and his company now receives just under $200,000 per half-minute, or approximately $1 million a day.

Or what about the example we're setting for the next generation of parents and teachers by telling them as students that it's O.K. to require the watching of advertisements for junk food and caffeine-laden soft drinks as part of their daily education? What standards will these students apply when they run the schools? Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs have nothing to say.

Instead, they make the argument that Mr. Whittle's Channel One is an ideal catalyst for media-literacy training. I, too, am an advocate of media education (see my Commentary, "The Case for Media Education,'' March 6, 1991).

I don't doubt that some teachers and schools might in fact intentionally use Channel One in media-literacy training as Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs suggest to "protect students from the pernicious influences of advertising promotion,'' but do the authors honestly believe Mr. Whittle's advertisers would continue to spend $200,000 a half-minute if they thought for a second their ads would be rendered ineffective in the wake of Channel One-inspired media-literacy and advertising-defense training?

Do they really believe, as they write, that Channel One is simply "an optional resource available to schools, and like any other resource purchased from an outside agency, it is only effective when used appropriately by a classroom teacher?''

There are three clear, substantial errors in this proposition. First, Channel One is not "optional''--once a school contracts with Whittle, the school is required to show it or lose its TV equipment. Second, it is not "purchased''--it is lent, and in exchange, schools deliver a captive audience of students. Third, far less than 1 percent of the teachers who use Channel One use it in the manner advocated by Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs, and even fewer teachers have received any substantial or formal training in media literacy. Indeed, the authors are themselves critical that "teachers have used Channel One as a very effective babysitter.'' By their own definition, then, Channel One cannotpossibly be "effective'' but in a very small handful of classrooms where it is being used "appropriately.''

But even here, I am wary. I agree that there are ways that Channel One can be used effectively in media education, but let me recount just one observation that I have made of teachers and students in some of the very schools most touted as models for how to use Channel One to teach media literacy.

In one classroom, I asked a group of 8th graders why Channel One was in the classroom in the first place. The response was, "So that kids can learn things.'' I probed further, "Why are the ads on?'' "So kids can know what stuff to buy,'' was the answer. It was clear that these students currently undergoing ChannelOne-inspired media education did not understand that they were being required to watch Channel One, first and foremost, because advertisers were paying mightily for their attention and because their school temporarily got some free TV's. So much for Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs's claim that Channel One is being effectively used in such schools to raise the critical media awareness of students and to help them "make connections between the classroom and the culture.''

As a catalyst to media literacy and to understanding media and politics, I often show my senior undergraduate students D.W. Griffith's racist film "Birth of a Nation'' (1915) and Leni Riefenstahl's classic celebration of Nazism, "Triumph of the Will'' (1933), precisely so that they can analyze how propaganda has been used historically. But I would never claim that these are simply neutral stimuli to be used heuristically in the classroom. They are not, nor is Channel One.

Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs begin their essay saying that one of the "important jobs of educators'' is "in selecting and sorting students' access to information and ideas.'' Do they forget that most teachers rarely see Channel One segments before they are piped into their classrooms, or that teachers rarely have any time to prepare a lesson plan around the daily ads and news? Do they know that because of the nature of the contract with Whittle only a small percentage of teachers in a school can select not to use Channel One? Where's the selecting and sorting they champion? Where's the firm rationale for subjecting eight million students a day to required commercial advertisements?

Channel One was designed by one of the world's most ingenious advertisers, a man who was never in the news business until he realized that news could be cleverly used to sell advertising time in the classroom and doctors' offices. Channel One is a Trojan Horse and Mr. Folkemer and Ms. Hobbs happily, and in my opinion, naively, celebrate its presence in their schools.

Robert W. Kubey
Associate Professor
School of Communication, Information,
and Library Services
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

To the Editor:

"Remembering Tony,'' by Timothy M. Breslin (Commentary, Jan. 25, 1994), is one of the saddest accounts of school failure I have ever read. To think of Tony, age 15, pleading with his younger sister to teach him to read while none of his teachers had even noticed he could not is heartbreaking.

Wasn't there a cumulative folder on file with teachers' comments on his academic progress every year since kindergarten? Wasn't there a report of standardized-test scores at periodic intervals? Tony had said he needed an education. Why wouldn't an assistant principal look into the record of the boy's previous academic efforts?

Instead of an objective study of Tony, we hear questions of easing this boy's despair, without considering that, for a kid who really wants to learn, there is no greater despair than inability in basic academics. We hear more about the failure of Tony's family situation, over which the school has no control, than about what happened to him in school, where he spent five or six of the best hours of his day.

However, I hear that high schools are being "restructured.'' Last Sunday, in fact, a local newspaper ran a front-page story about some high schools in Santa Clara County, Calif., that are being so "restructured.'' All students in these schools are now in college-prep courses, the length of class periods has been changed from 50 minutes to 90 minutes, and two subjects--such as history and English--have been integrated, with lots of hands-on activities.

For the final examination, students painted scenes from one of the nine books they read during the semester on white T-shirts. One student was quoted as saying, "Some students learn in different ways than others. We can't all do multiple-choice.''

This new structure is described as a better way to enrich young minds, promote self-esteem, and avoid failure. May I ask, "Are there any winners?''

Mary R. Khan
Morgan Hill, Calif.

Vol. 13, Issue 22

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