Documentaries on CBS and ABC tonight remind us that borders--whether between countries or classes--are only artificial barriers. They delineate boundaries but don't prevent what happens on one side from affecting the other.
CBS' case in point is "One River, One Country: The U.S./Mexico Border" (at 8 tonight on Channels 2 and 8). ABC's is the dividing line between the country's readers and non-readers, examined in "At a Loss for Words . . . Illiterate in America" (10 p.m., Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).
In "One River, One Country," correspondent Bill Moyers visits the border between Texas and Mexico to solicit the views of residents there about relations between the two nations. They tell him that the countries are inextricably linked--and that the flood that is Mexico's current economic crisis does not stop at the bank of the Rio Grande.
"The influx of people from the interior to the border who are seeking economic advantage in the United States or relief from their problems has become so great that it's just now an unmanageable problem here," says Judge Pat O'Rourke, chief executive of El Paso County.
In this setting, debate over immigration laws is academic. The Mexicans are there--poverty stricken and seeking jobs, health care, education. The sympathetic U.S. communities are being overwhelmed.
The plea is for a formal decision to make Mexico's recovery a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Otherwise, O'Rourke warns, "You'll break it down to the point where we don't any longer export our technology and know-how; we're going to import the poverty of Mexico."
ABC, meanwhile, kicks off an ambitious campaign to combat illiteracy in the United States with its documentary pointing up the national implications of this growing problem.
In "At a Loss for Words . . . Illiterate in America," Peter Jennings reports that some 20 million adults in this country cannot read or write, that the skills of another 20 million are below an eighth grade level, and that the ranks of both groups are swelling.
These are people, Jennings notes, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find a job as we become a post-industrial country, who will not be able to serve in the armed forces, who will not be active participants in the governmental system. They are a burden on the rest of society.
It's a sobering assessment that goes heavy on handing out blame--to government, to industry and, especially, to the teaching profession--but is glaringly light on offering solutions. That evidently will be the job of PBS--ABC's partner in Project Literacy U.S.--in its documentary "A Chance to Learn," scheduled for broadcast Sept. 17.
By coincidence, another documentary on public television tonight looks back at an early feminist experiment designed to help women cross a societal border.
"The Women of Summer" features the reminiscences of students and faculty who participated in a fascinating project that took place at Bryn Mawr every summer between 1921-1938. Women working in factories and at other blue-collar jobs were invited to the college for schooling in everything from economics, history and the law to poetry, astronomy and physical education.
The participants interviewed here suggest that the experience was inspirational, broadening their view of the world and of a woman's place in it. Many of them went on to become teachers, union organizers and community activists.
"The Women of Summer" airs tonight at 9 on Channel 24 and at 10 on Channels 15 and 50. It also will be seen Thursday at 10 p.m. on Channel 28.