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FAMILY LIFE

TV Seen as Culprit in 'Dumbing' of America

May 10, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's not much argument over the numbing effects of television, but could it be that it's also dumbing us to death?

Terry Bales thinks so and worries that we might not take any remedial action because of the bliss such ignorance breeds.

That and the enormous commitment and money that would be required to recapture our lives and our institutions.

As chairman of Rancho Santiago College's telecommunications/journalism department, Bales, 44, has spent more than two decades studying "the role of the media in influencing and impeding" education.

And as a teacher, he sees it every day.

"Television has become our primary baby-sitter," he says, "and with the advent of video games and the VCR, it's become our children's primary playmate, too.

"Essentially, they are raising themselves.

"Statistics show they watch television more than 20 hours a week, and 60% of the kids surveyed say they do all or most of their homework with the television on.

"The media have become more important than the institutions that used to direct our lives--the church, the family, the school."

One of the more troublesome results on society, he says, is that we have come to expect simple--and quick--answers. An "in-depth" report on television news, after all, takes only two minutes at the most.

The most complex crime cases are neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes, presidential candidates tell you all you need to know in 20 seconds, and in a little more time a preacher can take care of you for eternity.

There are no gray areas on television, and that's the rub, because real life is spent in one giant gray area of difficult problems and hard choices.

Another complaint of Bales is the effect sitcoms have had on the attitudes and manners of children. You will note that all kids on television specialize in incredibly witty retorts.

"Such disrespect," he says, "carries over to the classroom, where good manners become yet another lesson plan for the harried teacher to work into an already crammed day.

"Heaven help the poor instructor with 35 Eddie Murphys on his/her roll sheet!"

Bales also points out that, except for Saturday morning cartoons, very little programming is produced for children. "This means that during the early evening hours when kids watch a lot of TV, most of the shows they see are intended for adults."

He particularly bemoans statistics showing most Americans depending on television for its news of current events.

"If you were to take all the words scripted for a half-hour network evening newscast, they would not fill up the front page of your local newspaper."

Because brevity is the key to TV news, he says the result is a "confusing blur of images." As he points out, if a person is reading a book, newspaper or magazine and is confused, he can go back and read it over.

"One study showed in a geography test, American teens kept placing Beirut in Northern Ireland because often on the nightly news there were back-to-back stories involving terrorism in Lebanon and Belfast."

And, because kids don't read, they don't--or can't--write, either.

"It still amazes me that some who take my general education courses . . . are petrified when I assign them a three- to five-page analysis paper," he says. "They have never had such a task asked of them before, yet they are going to have to function in a world that is rapidly replacing manual labor with professions that emphasize services and communications."

So, what's the answer?

Bales believes that there is one, yet he doubts that we're ready to try.

As long as parents are abdicating their responsibilities and making the schools solely responsible for educating their children, he suggests that the public come up with money to cover "the steep price tags" that kind of education will require.

And he suggests that educators use what up to now have been their technological tormentors. "Use VCRs, tape recorders, radio, television, film, magazines, newspapers and the new electronic graphics or desktop publishing systems in the classroom," he says.

Have the students make TV shows or publish periodicals, he suggests.

"Such visual assignments foster teamwork, require writing skills to complete a script, advance critical thinking by means of problem-solving and usually teach the importance of meeting deadlines.

Bales also sees a need for active participation in the classroom by business and industry--providing money, equipment and manpower.

Our traditional idea of education "might have to take a back seat for a while as all school levels focus on restoring some sense of cultural literacy," he says.

And the chances of any of this happening?

"What do you think?"

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