Postman Does Penguins

Article excerpt

In his remarkable 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman examined the appeal and cultural function of Sesame Street.1 He wrote that parents embraced the program because "it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they could not or would not restrict their children's access to television." (p. 142) At the same time, the program "relieved them of the responsibility of teaching their pre-school children how to read." (143) Because it delivered effortless pleasure, Postman believed that Sesame Street prepared children all too well for full membership in their parents' amusement-obsessed culture.

When it was first introduced, many progressive educators praised Sesame Street as an effective means of encouraging early literacy and positive attitudes towards learning and school. Unfortunately, they missed the ways in which the show undermined what it attempted to promote. As Postman observed, Sesame Street encouraged children to love school only if school was like Sesame Street, complete with superior production values and rapid-fire shifts of topic and points of view.

Because television controlled "the time, attention and cognitive habits of youth," outside the classroom, it controlled not just what they learned, but what they valued. It was inevitable that the non-print, image-driven medium of television would displace the slow-moving world of words, Postman wrote, and thus transform education.

It is impossible to read Postman writing about television without reflecting on the speed of change, and on how readily we have set aside the debate over television as a cultural threat. It is equally impossible to miss Postman's prescience and his ability to understand the relationship between media and education, even after several generations of technology have been layered over the television.

Network programming has been augmented by other types of screen-mediated content. According to a 2003 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of surveyed parents deemed educational videos "very important" to their babies' development, and 27 % of young children "own" a Baby Einstein video.2 Consider this testimonial from a mother who is at least as enthusiastic about Baby Einstein as her mother probably was about Sesame Street, and for all the same reasons:

"My 9 month old has loved the videos and DVD's since he was 2 months old. Not only have they bought me precious minutes (and hours) of time to do things like 'take a shower', BUT ALSO I have actually seen his recognition skills develop... [Now] Baby Einstein is the only thing he will sit still for. Thank God for these products, both for a new mom's sanity and her baby's most advanced intellect, of course!!!"

Of course. Notice that the Baby Einstein testimonials are provided by parents rather than child development experts, a trend that (depending on one's perspective) reflects the democratizing tendencies of infoglut or the elevation of every opinion to the same level of merit. It is difficult to find disinterested experts in favour of the electronic stimulation of young children's minds. The American Association of Pediatricians has said that babies under the age of two shouldn't be put in front of televisions, and that preschoolers should watch less than 2 hours each day, but 26 per cent of them have televisions located in their bedrooms. Ninety-seven per cent of them have toys or clothes based on TV or movie characters.3

With the advent of the cable channel "Baby TV," the diaper demographic has come into its own. Parents are pitched with the promise that their babies will not be targeted by advertising as they are stimulated, soothed or channeled by the channel. There are programs for baby chefs, for babies who will watch "balls of different shapes" [sic] explore geometry, and even segments for "Spiritual Baby" that promise to nurture the inherent spirituality in every child.4

But inevitably, Spiritual Baby grows up to be Connected Child. …