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With Television, the Medium Is the Problem : 'It Offers Nothing in the Way of Give-and-Take'

September 20, 1993|HOWARD KARLITZ | Karlitz is general studies director of the Ohr Eliyahu Academy, a private school in Venice. He has a doctorate in educational administration and supervision from Teachers College, Columbia University

The current wave of indignation over television violence will soon break at the shoreline and wash back out into a sea of media dollars. Left behind will be naught a ripple of real change. The waters will be calm and navigable, ensuring the smoothest of sailing for the sloops that ply their trade every Saturday morning in the form of brutal cartoons. Batten down the hatches, me hardies, the blood storm continues a'blowing.

By focusing on one aspect of television, namely violence ("TV Violence Summit: A War of Words," Calendar, Aug. 4), the industry conveniently deflects the public's attention away from the real problem: Television, with a capital T. In Marshall McLuhan's words, "The medium is the message."

Being an educator for 25 years, I've worked with children from kindergarten through high school. Like other concerned teachers, I have seen levels of academic achievement plummet. A sixth-grade McGuffey reader, which was a standard classroom text of 60 years ago, would be a tough read for many 10th or 11th graders today.

In countless conferences, when asked by parents how they can help with their children's education, my standard reply was and continues to be, "Pull the plug." It makes so much sense, and parents invariably know it makes sense. Yet nine times out of 10 the response is a frustrated shrug of the shoulders, because the task is virtually impossible, so addicted are children to that screen.

Television represents the epitome of one-way communication. It offers nothing in the way of give-and-take. It leaves nothing open to the imagination. There is nothing to interpret. There is little in the way of vocabulary development or comprehension skills. In short, all forms of higher-order reasoning skills go straight down the tube.

I can hear my critics chorusing right now, "What about educational programs like 'Sesame Street,' the Discovery Channel, public broadcasting or documentaries?" OK, I'll admit they may offer something in the way of learning, but in the end, being part of "the bigger picture," they still fortify the addiction.


In my mind's eye, television is analogous to a controlled (or should I say "controlling") substance, the side effects of which are the user sitting slack-jawed before a shimmering screen for hours on end. Again, at the risk of belaboring the point of the prophetic Canadian educator, it's the medium that's the message.

So how does one go about breaking the addiction? What substitute can one employ? What solitary pursuit (like television) will, in fact, foster two-way communication, offer give-and-take, leave something open to the imagination, promote interpretation, and foster comprehension skills and vocabulary development? That's simple. . . . Reading.

Ah, now I can hear the average parent lamenting: "Easy for you to say. Have you ever tried cutting off television?" Well, I have. When my own child was young, I pulled the plug. And it was war--nothing short of total war. But my wife, Karen, and I persisted, having drawn the line in the sand. Karen read to him and encouraged him to read to her. They were constantly cutting up old magazines and pasting pictures all over the house.

What developed was an infatuation with paper and the printed word. When he got a bit older and he wanted to stay up later, we allowed it. Invariably he'd read himself to sleep. Finally, when he entered high school and the time had come for him to make his own choices, he began watching television again, only with a self-imposed moderation that would be impossible for us to duplicate had he not been forcibly weaned.

Doesn't it all make sense? Common sense dictates that in order to be good at something, one must practice. And if reading is the key to success in any school subject, how can one be successful in school when one doesn't read but watches television or plays video games at every opportunity?

I'm very fortunate to be working in a school in which a great many homes do not even have a television. In those where there is one, the students are generally limited in terms of what and how much they can watch. There is no formal school regulation governing this.

Pulling the plug automatically alleviates the problem of violent television, and one needn't be concerned anymore with a pie-in-the-sky "self-regulating" industry. The job is done. More important, however, think about the bigger picture--curing the illness. It could be Hemingway instead of Hulk Hogan, Tennyson instead of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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