November 11, 2002
Teachers versus TV

"If you can read this, you must be old" says Joanne Jacobs (to whom many thanks for the link to here last week), ruminating on the declining state of literacy learning in the USA. I say literacy learning, because it is not entirely clear to me that the cause of the problem, if problem it be, is that American children are being taught badly. I suspect it may also be that they are being entertained well. I further suspect that these two influences may be intertwined.

I have heard a number of reports and recollections over the years about the surprising excellence of education behind the old Iron Curtain. One explanation for that is that the old USSR and its various colonies made good educational decisions. But when you consider the crassness of so many of the other decisions these people made, this doesn't strike me as a wholly satisfactory explanation.

How about the utter non-excellence of Soviet television? (This was once memorably described by Oz-in-Britain Clive James as "Grandstand without the sport", Grandstand being the BBC weekend afternoon sports show, and there are now people here who regard Grandstand as being Grandstand without the sport, but that's another argument.) In the absence of an enticing televised popular culture, Soviet-empire children often had nowhere else to look besides school for excitement. And when they got there, their teachers were not cursed by unfavourable comparisons between their mundane selves and magical popular entertainers, because there were no magical popular entertainers, only stuffed shirt puppet propagandists for a government that had turned boredom into an art form. In the West, by contrast, ever since the nineteen sixties, teachers have been fighting a constant battle for the hearts and minds of their pupils against the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Simpsons and Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I'm not saying that popular entertainment shouldn't exist. I love popular entertainment. What I do say is that running a compulsory, class-room-based me-talk-you-listen me-command-you-obey school system has got a whole lot harder now that the stuff outside the classrooms has got so much more diverting.

In short, most of what is now called "teaching" has got a lot harder, and if teaching has also got worse, that may well be a big part of why it has got worse.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:43 PM
Category: Literacy
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