MARK NEXT THURSDAY on your calendar: National TV-Turnoff Week runs from April 24 through April 30. With luck and a little publicity, hundreds of thousands of idiot boxes from sea to shining sea will stay dark for seven days. Who knows? Americans may read a few more books than usual, have a few more conversations, do a little more homework, play a little more baseball, spend a bit more time on the crossword puzzle. If enough TV sets are kept unplugged — and in a nation where a majority of the public can name the Three Stooges but only 17 percent can name three Supreme Court justices, that's a big if — the national IQ ought to be up a point or two by May 1.
Television has its uses, but enrichment of the mind is not among them. There are plenty of smart people who watch a lot of TV, but watching TV never made anyone smart. It does, however, make a lot of people — especially young people — dumb. There is an almost perfect inverse correlation between educational success and hours devoted to the tube. The higher the percentage of students who watch TV, the lower the percentage who get good grades, finish high school, or make it to college. Stupidity-in-a-box: That's television.
It's bad enough when TV is bad. It's worse when it claims to be good for you. "Oprah," "Wheel of Fortune," and "Welcome Back, Kotter" reruns have no intellectual value, and nobody claims they do. But a multibillion-dollar industry exists to perpetuate the fiction of "educational" television. If only there were such a thing. If only sitting transfixed in front of a screen really did prepare children for school. Sadly, educational television is a chimera. Like "dietetic ice cream" and "guaranteed investments," educational TV is a sales pitch, not a real product. You can't lose weight by eating ice cream, and your kids can't get educated by watching TV.
Undoubtedly the producers of "Sesame Street" — to cite the best-known educational show — would beg to differ. Children's Television Workshop calls its flagship program "the largest single teacher of young children in the world." Now in its 28th season, "Sesame Street" has long been celebrated as the epitome of high-quality TV; few broadcast offerings have ever been so revered or so popular.
But revered or not, "Sesame Street" isn't educational. As TV-Turnoff Week approaches, it is useful to think about why.
The fundamental message of "Sesame Street" is that learning is just another form of electronic entertainment. Every episode is designed to dazzle young viewers with glitz and action and speed. Joan Ganz Cooney, the producer who dreamed up "Sesame Street" in 1967, set out deliberately to imitate the kinds of commercial programming kids reveled in. "We knew that young children . . . liked cartoons, game shows, situation comedies," she once wrote. "Above all, they were attracted by fast-paced, highly visual, oft-repeated commercials."
The problem is that while game shows and fast-paced commercials can be catchy and diverting, they can't teach. A child who sits and stares as colorful letters dance on his screen doesn't learn how to read, he learns how to watch TV. Reading isn't taught with 60-second Muppet skits, bouncy "ads" for the letter H, and fast-paced musical animations. Literacy takes work. It takes persistence, trial-and-error, attentiveness, patience. It requires asking questions and remembering answers. It requires a child's active participation, not his passive willingness to be amused.
More than 75 percent of American children have watched "Sesame Street." High schools and colleges are filled with students who grew up on Big Bird and Cookie Monster. Certainly the show has been a commercial success — "Sesame Street" products from bubble bath to pasta to underpants gross more than $800 million a year, and top executives at Children's Television Workshop are paid salaries of $300,000 and up.
But educationally, it has been a thoroughgoing failure. The "Sesame Street" generation is the most ignorant in US history: less ready to learn when they enter school, less informed when they leave, less studious in between. Is it just a coincidence that the first generation to be steeped in "educational television" is so woefully uneducated?
In her landmark 1990 study, "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think," educational psychologist Jane Healy condemned "Sesame Street" for having "started a generation of children in the seductive school of organized silliness, where their first lesson is that learning is something adults can be expected to make happen for them as quickly and pleasantly as possible." Watching TV is as easy and enjoyable as eating ice cream; learning, like dieting, is a lot harder. There are pleasures to learning, but they come only with effort and concentration. "Sesame Street" is jazzed-up and fun, full of jokes and sound effects and surface appeal. But in the end, it's still TV: stupidity-in-a-box.
The most that can be said of educational television is that other kinds of programming are worse. If it's a choice between "Jerry Springer" and "Sesame Street," Bert & Ernie win every time.
But why make that choice? The best TV is no TV. Try turning yours off for a week. Watch your kids get smarter.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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