As near as I can tell, I was conceived about the same time as television – well, maybe born about the same time as television. I guess you could say television was conceived a long time ago. Both television and I were introduced, anyway, about the middle of the twentieth century. I was most certainly of the first generation of TV babies.
As a small child, I was an omnivore as far as TV was concerned. I would wake up before anyone else in the house so that I could watch the farm report. Then it was on to Howdy Doody, Mighty Mouse, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Popeye, The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Burns and Allen, You Bet Your Life, Name That Tune. . .I could go on and on. Couldn’t you? Oh, and the old movies. I loved all the old movies. It was unbelievable to me that without even leaving the comfort and security of the family room I could watch such classics as All About Eve, The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, Auntie Mame, A Star is Born, Flying Down to Rio, Mrs. Miniver – It’s no wonder I had trouble with reading. All of my experience of taking in information was passive. All I had to do was flip a switch, and all would be presented to me on a silver platter.
It was not until much, much later that I discovered reading, as if for the first time. Of course, I was a dutiful child, so I learned to read along with everyone else. And I could slowly make my way through a children’s book back in my early primary school years. But it was a painful process. My mind would wander. I had to go back over and over sometimes to get the gist of what I was reading. Sometimes I read so slowly that it actually impaired my comprehension. My mind had become impatient. I wanted the fast food of learning. I wanted TV.
So I sometimes wonder what effect TV has on children in the classroom today. How good can that be?
Back when I was going to Linden School, I remember occasionally having an assembly in the auditorium where a television set – about a 13” – was placed in the middle of the school stage so that we could watch, say, Alan Shepard going up into space. Sitting down on the floor, we would crane our little necks skyward, as if watching the rocket take off from the platform in front of us. Of course, even with the eagle vision of the young, the images were blurry and dim. There was always “snow” in the picture, and the horizontal hold didn’t always hold, in which case, Mr. Pittman, the only male teacher in the school, would walk up on stage and hit the TV with the flat of his hand. In science class, occasionally, the same TV set was rolled in on a cart to the front of the room so that we could watch a special program on “educational television” about, say, photosynthesis.
But TV is not an ideal learning tool, in my experience. It puts me into a state of utter paralysis, psychologically speaking. My mind goes into a semicoma, and the images and words wash over me hypnotically. It’s funny because, logically speaking, you would expect TV to be the ideal learning tool. I have watched many wonderfully thoughtful and informative programs on television. But six weeks later, I couldn’t pass a pop quiz on the subject matter. But I could tell you that the cinematography was stunning, or the costumes were authentic, or the acting was superb. Of course the information is now stashed somewhere on my hard drive, but mostly inaccessible.
And herein lies the problem. A lot of what you get on TV is, well, not the kind of thing you want on your hard drive. I stopped watching NYPD Blue several years ago because there was an episode with such a disturbing image in it, that I decided I didn’t want any more such images implanted in my brain again. Yet I know that picture is still somewhere lodged in my brain, and in fact, writing about it, I can almost bring it up. I don’t want to. How much useless, disturbing, depressing, not to mention stress-provoking information (and misinformation) is fed to us daily via TV.
The only thing is – It’s a hard habit to break. If you think giving up cigarettes is hard, try giving up TV for a week. Art and I have a habit of watching the TV news twice a day, once either at the dinner hour or at bedtime (or both!) and once in the morning when we get up. I was trying to analyze why we do this, considering that 1) the news is usually pretty much the same from one day to the next and 2) mostly it’s depressing and/or alarming. I decided it’s like this: Watching the news every day is the combination of a wish and a fear. The wish is that suddenly things will get dramatically better. The fear is that suddenly things will get dramatically worse. The reality is that, with rare exceptions, things stay pretty much the same. The cast of characters may change, but the issues are always the same. Strangely, there is reassurance in that fact, “Oh, good. Nothing to adjust to. Everything’s the same.” Now as I write about it I think – “Oh, that’s a lot of hooey. We watch out of habit”.
There are some people I know who don’t watch TV. At least they say they don’t watch TV. (And they always let you know they don’t watch TV. I don’t blame them. I’d be proud of it, too.) But for the rest of us, this is the monkey on our backs. Is there a twelve-step program for TV?