Skip Navigation Links

Will the real school please stand up?

The REAL educational impact on children is not taking place in our classrooms.
For two decades now, a more powerful influence has been subtly shaping the minds and values of an entire generation.
What is that force?
How is it affecting us?
What should you be doing about it?
This article reveals today's REAL school.


HOW WOULD you measure educational impact? Would you judge it in terms of hours expended by the learner? Would you consider the effect on attitudes and behavior? Would you evaluate the influence on tastes in music, art, literature, styles, language, recreation, and even diet?

Most people would agree that all of these are important and valid indicators. Considered together, they should certainly measure the degree to which children are being impressed by and changed by any educational agent.

Then what if we apply these criteria to the various educational influences in the lives of children today — school, family, church, peer group, mass media, and community? Which of these would you guess to be the greatest educational force in our contemporary society?


The Wrong Answer

Now your first reaction is predictable. No doubt the answer that flashed into your mind was "the schools" — of course. But that's just reflex — a traditional reflex. That was the answer twenty years ago. That is the pat answer our society teaches, but times have changed. Unfortunately that answer is out of date and out of touch with the reality of the Seventies. It just isn't true anymore and it's time we began to admit it.

Oh yes, we still go through the motions. We continue to gather tens of millions of children into classrooms daily all across the land just as we have for the past century and a half. We continue to teach a curriculum, which has never quite gotten in step with the times, by methods to match. But imperceptibly, almost without our awareness, our classrooms have lost their influence.

Another more powerful educational force has emerged in the past twenty years which has finally relegated the schools to a poor second place in the competition for children's minds. That force is commercial television. All pervasive — all persuasive — uncontrolled TV!

The focus of real education has shifted. In 95% of America's homes today, the influence of the "Little Red Schoolhouse" has been all but canceled out by a glowing TV tube in the corner of the living room!

Yes, by any measure, whether magnetic appeal, amount of exposure, or power to change behavior, commercial television now wields the major educational impact in the land!

Do you take exception to that? Does that sound like a sensational exaggeration? Well if you think this is over-dramatizing the situation, then ponder these statistics.


More TV Than School

Incredible as it sounds, by the time the average American child reaches adolescence he will have viewed about 22,000 hours of television. That's equal to more than two and one-half years of 24-hour-a-day viewing! But, during those same formative years, he will have spent less than 11,000 hours in a school classroom. It's hard to believe, but it's true — twice as much time spent in televiewing as in schooling!

Now consider this. Nearly 12 million children between the ages of three and five years do not attend any form of school. Yet, according to the Nielsen Television Index, these preschoolers watch television an average of 54.1 hours each week. No school for these tots, but they are already spending nearly 64% of their waking time passively staring at the great electronic "schoolmarm"!

This means that by the time one of these preschool children finally enters kindergarten he has spent more time in front of a television set than an average student in a liberal arts program spends in the classroom throughout his entire four years of college attendance! Think of it! Infants being influenced by TV for the same duration of time it would take to graduate from college! Fantastic!

But that's not all. According to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, all- surveys indicate that children and adolescents spend on an average anywhere from one fourth to one half of the waking day before a television screen. Only sleeping time surpasses television as the top time-consumer.

Did you really get the significance of that statement? Up to one half of their conscious lives irretrievably gone, without intellectual interaction — slump-shouldered, slack-jawed, and spellbound in living color!

Even if the content were entirely edifying, wouldn't that much exposure still be unbalanced?

And, that raises some crucial questions we need to ask. "Just what are children watching during these interminable hours?" "What is filling their minds?" In short, "What is the TV curriculum?"


Ugliness — Inanity — Noise and Violence

If any single facet of our national life has been thoroughly surveyed, polled, and researched in recent years, it has been the content of commercial television programming. And, what has been reported over and over again leaves little ground for optimism.

Government agencies, educators, broadcasting associations, and journalists are consistently appalled by the exploitive misuse of this most powerful medium.

Listen to these shocking reports from reputable sources and bear in mind that this is the curriculum of children in 95% of America's homes — day in and day out. In the words of Dr. Victor B. Cline, a researcher at the University of Utah, here is what the first TV generation has been weaned on. He has estimated that, ". . . on the average, between kindergarten and 14 years of age, a child witnesses the violent destruction of 13,000 human beings on television."

Imagine absorbing that much mayhem by the eighth or ninth grade. Why, even the most hard-bitten combat soldier would never have begun to participate in such slaughter! And, consider this, Dr. Cline didn't include children younger than five years old, yet we know they are watching. If he had extended his figures by even three years the total would be more like 17,300 episodes of violent death viewed before early adolescence.

Then, from the television industry itself comes a report by the National Association for Better Broadcasting describing the TV curriculum as, ". . . a mass of indiscriminate entertainment dominated by some 40 animated series, which in turn are dominated by ugliness, noise, and violence."

Anyone who has watched Popeye, Batman, or Tom and Jerry can well sympathize with the Association's distress at the ear-shattering, overwhelming avalanche of punching, zapping, cutting asunder, burning, exploding, head-smashing, brain-jellying, utter annihilation which is portrayed in such "comic" programs.

Again, in another important survey, staff members of the Christian Science Monitor watched seventy-five hours of evening programs in the first week of the 1968-69 TV season. Their findings were appalling. During the period of viewing, they recorded 254 incidents of violence — seventy-one murders, suicides, and killings of various kinds plus threats of like treatment. That's better than three such incidents every hour! At that rate our living rooms have become a grotesque killing ground where the screaming never dies out and the blood never dries.

Well, so it goes, report after report like a broken, blood-spattered record.


TV Curriculum

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. summed up the situation in his powerful commentary entitled Violence: America in the Sixties. "The children of the electronic age," he wrote, "sit hypnotized by the parade of killings, beatings, gunfights, knifings, maiming, and brawls which flash incessantly across the tiny screen . . ." (p. 54).

And this, my friends, is the TV curriculum — make no mistake about it. It is most interesting that Robert Lewis Shayon, TV and Radio editor for Saturday Review recently made a similar reference. In his words, "Violence, internal and external, is the young generation's hang-up . . . This is the way our world is; TV tells us so — TV is the true curriculum of our society" (January 11, 1969, p. 103, emphasis ours throughout).

Whether we like it or not, the TV script writers and Madison Avenue ad men have literally become the nation's de facto curriculum makers! And, it is quite clear that their curriculum no longer teaches A for apple, B for baby, and C for cat — not anymore! Today it's A for arson and assassination, B for bullying and brutality, and C for crudity and crassness!

Depending on the channel you choose, the "Three R's" have become russlin, rasslin, and rawhide; or rock, racket, and ribaldry — all of which adds up to rubbish!

And make no mistake, it's having a tremendous effect on young people in every way from their' posture to their personal habits to their very outlook and purpose in life.

"But," you may be asking, "is it necessarily a bad effect?" "Don't they say watching TV is not harmful for children?" "In fact, don't they say that watching violence helps children get it out of their system?" "And anyway, don't they say that only criminal types go out and do what they see on TV?" "And don't they say . . ."

Whoa! Hold it! Wait a minute! Who are THEY? And where did you hear what THEY said? Are you sure your sources are reliable? Let's take a hard look at who has been saying what and then maybe we can draw some conclusions about the TV curriculum.


Everyone Is An Expert!

If all the books, pamphlets, dissertations, articles, broadsides, and other miscellaneous documents written about television during the past twenty years were gathered together in one place, they would no doubt fill a large living room. They might not even leave space for the TV set. And, if you were to ask the authors of this mighty pile of literature, you would find that each one considers himself an unquestioned authority on the subject.

The situation is not unlike that in the field of education, where virtually every citizen thinks of himself as thoroughly competent to deliver expert opinion merely because he is a product of the system. You have probably heard (or made) the remark, "I can tell you all about our schools because I went to one once!" Well, much the same thing is true with television. Being an owner-viewer or maybe only a viewer of TV seems to qualify anyone's observations regarding the medium as authoritative.

Some of these "expert" observations are no doubt based upon sober reflection and research. However, far too many are sheer expressions of personal bias. Unfortunately, the latter type, lacking in scientific objectivity, most often appear in the popular press. And, these tend to form much of the existing mythology regarding TV. If you think about it, you will have to admit tilt most of what you believe about television was acquired in this way.

With this in mind, let's scotch the hearsay and challenge the so-called experts. Let's bury some of these misleading fairy tales right now and get things straight. Let's consider the three questions most often raised, because they represent three basic myths of television.


Debunking the Myths

Myth # 1: That research proves the present viewing habits of children and adolescents are not harmful to their development.

Contributing to this myth are men of considerable stature. Indeed, widely recognized authorities have fostered this belief. A typical example is a statement by Dr. Wilber Schramm, one of the most highly regarded experts in the field. He is Professor of Communications and Journalism and Director of the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University. Discussing TV research, he recently wrote in a booklet entitled Children and Television, "I can tell you, as a research scholar, that not one of these studies has been able to show much effect. The latest and largest, the British study of television and children, has just been completed; and the conclusion is that television, so far as results show, is, of itself, neither very good nor very bad in changing the development of children."

Myth # 1 Debunked: As is the case with other controversial issues such as the dangers of cigarettes, marijuana, or cholesterol, there are many who refuse to accept any cause-and-effect relationship between the endless hours of television viewing and the frightening deterioration in juvenile behavior. They grasp at any straw which appears to support their position. This is the case here.

The foregoing statement by Dr. Schramm is always quoted as if it vindicated television from any harmful influence. Yet, he didn't say that. What he did say was that studies showed TV to be "neither very good nor very bad" in its effect on children.

Now by any logic this can only mean that TV is to some extent bad. Just what very bad might mean is a moot question. But if it's only slightly bad, is that acceptable? Is that an endorsement? Is that grounds for claiming no harm? Certainly not!

Let's pose the identical situation in a different context. What if it were a medicine or food he was discussing, something you were allowing your child to eat — then what would your reaction be? Would you give him medicine or a meal that was bad for him even if it was only slightly bad? Nonsense! And, don't think for a minute that what a youngster takes into his mind is less important than what goes into his bloodstream. No. Not by any stretch of the imagination. What enters his mind either builds or destroys character and that is really what is at issue here. We're concerned with the educational impact of TV.

But another very important question which must be considered in evaluating Dr. Schramm's statement is whether it is valid to judge the effects of American TV on the basis of British research findings? The answer has to be no for several reasons. First, television coverage is by no means as universal in Britain. Certainly nothing like 95% of British homes are equipped with TV. Therefore, they have not begun to reach the saturation that has occurred in the U.S.

Second, British television is largely state owned and controlled. There is no proliferation of channels, and consequently programming is not influenced by commercial competition which depends so heavily on the portrayal of violence for "crowd-catching," ratings, and profits.

Third, British TV is forbidden to show acts of brutality and violence of the kind that are commonplace on U.S. television. For this reason, children in Britain have not had comparable exposure to such a glut of mayhem.

And, fourth, British TV broadcasts only during limited hours and is therefore not available to children 24 hours a day as in the U.S. On this basis alone, the exposure is bound to be significantly less.

Obviously the research data are not comparable and should not have been thrown together. But such was the case, and many have been misled while the myth is perpetuated.

No, it would require some form of self-delusion or loss of contact with reality to refuse to recognize the harm which has accrued to this TV-saturated generation. As Walter Lippmann has written, "A continual exposure of a generation to the commercial exploitation of the enjoyment of violence and cruelty is one way to corrode the foundations of a civilized society" (in Schlesinger, Violence: America in the Sixties, p. 60). That corrosion has happened! Our first TV-educated generation is now manning the barricades on college campuses across the land!

But let the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence lay Myth # 1 to rest once and for all. On September 23, 1969, that group, which was impaneled by former President Johnson, issued its long-awaited and exhaustive report. Remember now, the sources of information upon which the Commission based its conclusions were all available research studies and expert testimony presented by both sides in the controversy. Here is what the report said in part. "The preponderance of available research evidence strongly suggests . . . that violence in television programs can and does have adverse effects upon audiences — particularly child audiences.

"Television," the Commission continued, "enters powerfully into the learning process of children and teaches them a set of moral and social values about violence which are inconsistent with the standards of a civilized society . . ." That's pretty straightforward and what it clearly means is that present programming policies and viewing habits are harmful — that serious moral and social damage is being done NOW - and that we probably should have changed those practices YESTERDAY!