Sesame Street was one of my favorite shows growing up. My kids have enjoyed its child Elmo’s World as well. So it felt a little personal when Postman started in on this beloved show. Yet as painful as his points are they ring true. The key to this chapter is to understand that Postman is not going after TV for being entertaining. Neither is he going after educators for wanting to educate. The problem is that when you mix the two entertainment takes over. The net result not that TV makes learning fun, but that students learn to require education to be fun. Postman writes, “We now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.’ Which is to say that Sesame Street undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents” (143). This is because if one is going to make education fit for TV you must change it to fit the medium not the other way around. In this sense TV is always educational in that it is educating children “to do what television requires of them”(144). It teaches children to be passive recipients rather than active participants.
TV as a curriculum
Postman says that we are undergoing our third educational crisis. The first was in the fifth century in Athens when writing became dominant. The second crisis came about through Gutenberg’s printing press in the sixteenth century. The latest crisis is the “electronic revolution” that continues even today(145). TV has the ability to “control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth”(145). This is why Postman says TV has become a curriculum both in the home and the classroom. This has led to two important effects.
The 3 Commandments of Educational TV
The first effect of TV upon our philosophy of education is that education and entertainment must go hand in hand(146). Education by its very nature is not an entertaining enterprise. It involves imposing restraints and making demands upon students. It presents challenges to overcome. Students learn in sequence requiring perseverance and perspiration(146). They learn to forgo immediate pleasures and embrace delayed gratification. Postman paraphrases the ancient philosopher Cicero who said, “the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present”(146). The problem is that TV locks students into the present through the constant need of amusement. Postman then gives the three commandments of educational television:
1) Thou shall have no prerequisites – the nature of TV demands that a student be able to pick up at any point on any episode. It does not rely upon sequence or continuity.
2) Thou shalt induce no perplexity – The information must be easily grasped with minimal thought because “the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount”(148).
3) Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt – Discussion, explanation, argumentation are boring on TV. Thus they must be replaced with storytelling.
The second effect of this titanic shift toward entertainment in education is a shift felt in the classroom where teachers are pressed to make learning “fun” or “engaging” (whatever that means). The end result is a vast increase in the amount of visual aids in teaching: supplementing teaching with videos and games, “reducing the amount of exposition their students must cope with…relying less on reading and writing assignments”(148-149). This doesn’t increase learning. It reinforces the idea that everything in life must be fun.
An Object Lesson: The Voyage of the Mimi
Postman concludes the chapter with the example of The Voyage of the Mimi. This was a massive multi-media educational project. You can read about it in the book or here and here. You can even watch it on YouTube. Now aside from it being Ben Affleck’s second role on film, this project was a major effort to combine TV, print, and computers to educate children. I won’t go into the details here. Suffice to say while it made the subject of humpback whales more entertaining, there wasn’t much evidence that students did much learning. This is because at the end of the day the material the students had to learn was made for TV. And as Postman points out, “so far as many reputable studies are concerned, television viewing does not significantly increase learning, is inferior to and less likely than print to cultivate higher-order, inferential thinking”(152). In other words, it would have been better (and cheaper) to read a book about humpback whales than watch a $3.65 million TV show with print and computer add-ons. But make no mistake, students did learn. Postman concludes:
In the end Postman’s concern is the same as the other chapters: How we learn affects what we learn. If education must be entertaining then television will dictate what is learned not educational standards.
I think one objection to this chapter is that students have always found school boring and want to be entertained. I would agree and I think Postman would too. The difference is that children would then grow up in a society that calls them out of constant amusement and into responsibility as a part of their maturation. Also, there may be less amusement, but there is a whole lot of personal satisfaction when you study and get a good grade, you grapple and understand a new concept or even finish a hard book. Entertainment doesn’t induce critical thinking because it demands so little of us. And this is not to say there is no place for entertainment. There certainly is. What Postman is concerned about (and I agree) is that we have not thought adequately about the effect of the shift from print to TV and its children is having upon us. And while we want to engage students, wee must be careful with how we are engaging them because how we teach impacts what we teach.
For this school year I have adopted the motto “The things worth doing are hard things.”
I want my children to know that we are raising them to be adults, not to be perennial children in adult bodies. One of my kids complained that school was boring. My response was that education was for challenging her, not amusing her. She didn’t like that, but when I check her math work and commend her for her hard work she smiles in a way that cannot be produced by a TV show.
We see this in the church as well. Christian parents and students complaining that Sunday School curriculum is not fun enough. Church members complaining that they need engaging teaching. My wife and I remind our children that church is not about entertainment. That’s not why we go. We go to worship and learn. We go to fellowship with the saints. We go to pray and to be fed by God in his word. Worship allows my children to be unlocked from the present moment, to learn the truths of the faith, to be challenged and connect into the Christian story that existed before them and of which they are taking part. My children were not made to be entertained 24/7. They were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
What do you think? Do you see effects of entertainment in education? Do you think it’s a problem or help? You can contact me here.