I teach courses in multimedia. These courses include digital video productions that are seen on the closed circuit television system at the high school where I work. I also once worked for KNBC in Los Angeles. I enjoy watching television, probably an hour and sometimes two a night. So I generally support television as entertainment. However, as I sit here reflecting on the unacceptably poor quality of first semester projects that I have just completed grading, and after I have already commiserated with a close friend and fellow teacher, I am wondering what is at the root of the problems we teachers all face with our students. My answer: television.
Before I continue, I don’t plan on pigeonholing television as the actual root. The actual root is much deeper. But television serves up a great example of a delivery system that is poisoning our culture. Not all television is poisoning all of our culture. But most of the images children see daily on the small screen neither promote a healthy lifestyle nor the importance of education. Instead kids get images of moronic parents and teachers who are buffoons at best. Entertaining? Sure. Especially to adults who can watch objectively. But to kids? Kids who don’t have the mature filters of experience watch this programming for multiple hours a day pointing and laughing at the idiot adults and are then expected to come to school and treat their teachers with respect. Right. Then go home to their hard-working parents and are expected to appreciate all that their parents’ sacrifice for their children’s well being. Kids don’t get it. Unlike years ago when instead of plopping kids down in front of the tube they were given household chores, or taken on trips to the laundry, and sometimes even included in “bring your kid to work day.” Instead of learning the value and sacrifice and hard work, kids learn about what products are best for cleaning carpets.
I don’t fault television producers and programmers completely. Their jobs are to sell soap. In order to sell soap they must draw an audience to watch the soap commercials offered by the advertisers who actually pay the bills for television production. I support the capitalistic approach to economics so I support the idea of commercial television. Most television producers and programmers do their jobs very well. They sell soap for the advertisers. The advertisers are in the business of selling soap so the programs they pay for are designed to attract viewers who might potentially buy their soap (hence soap operas). Soap sellers are not concerned with content, moral, or character education (evidence soap operas). So television producers and programmers are not concerned with moral or character education in the programming they offer. This would be ok if it stayed in the realm of mid-afternoon-before-kids-get-home TV. But the same mentality is applied to the 24/7 kids programming on cable. Kids are a huge, I repeat HUGE market for advertisers. From breakfast cereal to video games, kids spend their parent’s money. Kids watch TV (some watch a lot of TV) so in the world of advertising they are fair game for using the TV to sell products. Like soap sales, breakfast cereal and video game companies are not selling content, moral, and character education. They are selling products. So the images seen in the programming they pay for reflect an effort to sell their products, not make better people. That’s our (the teachers) job.
What we see on TV is a symptom of a bigger cultural problem. The problem is what our culture values, or doesn’t value in general. The second part of my conversation with my colleague concerned the lack of stigma attached to failure. Some kids don’t care if they fail and there is no reason for them to care. Nothing happens. If they fail they move right along to the next course, to the next grade, and almost all the way out of high school. In California we may not like the CAHSEE, but at least now there is some sort of hard obstacle to overcome if a student wants a diploma. Failing kids today is a big no-no in schools all over the country. If a student doesn’t fail they’re not left behind. If we pass them, they will move on. But just because the students aren’t left behind doesn’t mean they have actually learned anything. I’ve taught long enough to see that the students I currently teach are the least prepared of any I have had before. I’m sure my predecessors who taught these same kids would agree with me. This is a problem that has been going on for a long time without being resolved. Now what do we do? How about less TV?
Since we can’t change the kids we have to teach, and we can’t change the standards, and no one can be left behind, then maybe we need to start taking a long hard look at the curriculum. Perhaps it is time that we narrow the scope of what we teach. Sometimes knowing a lot about a few things is better than knowing a little about many things. If a majority of the students cannot absorb all the content in the course scope and sequence, then instead of trying to keep an absurd schedule to teach them everything, maybe we should slow down the pace and not move on until they actually get it. There is no sense in leaving a kid to fail because of a testing schedule. Perhaps it’s time to change our definition of success. Not dumb it down, but adjust for our audience. Like a television producer, we need to know who it is we are trying to reach and then give them what they want, or in this case, need. Imagine what the classroom would be like if the students actually learned and retained what they were taught at each grade level? For teachers it’s not about selling soap, breakfast cereal or video games; our mission is to teach the appropriate content, moral, and character education that will improve the lives of the students in our classrooms. I think I saw that somewhere on TV.