Television: The Cyclops That Eats Books
Woiwode, Larry, USA TODAY
WHAT IS DESTROYING America today is not the liberal breed of one-world politicians, International Monetary Fund bankers, misguided educational elite, or World Council of Churches. These largely are symptoms of a greater disorder. If there is any single institution to blame, it is television.
TV is more than a medium; it has become a full-fledged institution, backed by billions of dollars each season. Its producers want us to perch in front of a glazed-over electronic screen, pressing our clutch of discernment through the floorboards, and sitting in a spangled, zoned-out state ("couch potatoes," in current parlance) while we are instructed in the proper liberal tone and attitude by Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. These television celebrities have more temporal power than the teachings of Aristotle and Plato have built up over the centuries.
Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system, government, or church. Children particularly are susceptible. They are mesmerized, hypnotized, and tranquilized by TV. It often is the center of their world. Even when the set is turned off, they continue to tell stories about what they've seen on it. No wonder that, as adults, they are not prepared for the front line of life. They simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world.
One of the most disturbing truths about TV is that it eats books. Once out of school, nearly 60% of all adult Americans never read a single book, and most of the rest read only one book a year. Alvin Kernan, author of The Death of Literature, maintains that reading books "is ceasing to be the primary way of knowing something in our society." He also points out that bachelor's degrees in English literature have declined by 33% in the last 20 years and that, in many universities, the courses largely are reduced to remedial reading. American libraries, he adds, are in crisis, with few patrons to support them.
Thousands of teachers at the elementary, secondary, and college levels can testify that their students' writing exhibits a tendency toward a superficiality that wasn't seen, say, 10 or 15 years ago. It shows up not only in their lack of analytical skills, but in poor command of grammar and rhetoric. I've been asked by a graduate student what a semicolon is. The mechanics of the English language have been tortured to pieces by TV. Visual, moving images--which are the venue of television--can't be held in the net of careful language. They want to break out. They really have nothing to do with language. So language, grammar, and rhetoric have become fractured.
Recent surveys by dozens of organizations also suggest that up to 40% of the American public is functionally illiterate. That is, our citizens' reading and writing abilities, if they have any, are impaired so seriously as to render them, in that handy jargon of our times, dysfunctional. The problem isn't just in our schools or the way reading is taught-TV teaches people not to read. It renders them incapable of engaging in an activity that now is perceived as strenuous, because it is not a passive hypnotized state.
Passive as it is, television has invaded our culture so completely that the medium's effects are evident in every quarter, even the literary world. It shows up in supermarket paperbacks, from Stephen King (who has a certain clever skill) to pulp fiction. These really are forms of verbal TV-literature that is so superficial that those who read it can revel in the same sensations they experience when watching television.
Even more importantly, the growing influence of television, Kernan says, has changed peoples habits and values and affected their assumptions about the world. The sort of reflective, critical, and value-laden thinking encouraged by books has been rendered obsolete. In this context, we would do well to recall the Cyclops--the race of giants that, …
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Publication information: Article title: Television: The Cyclops That Eats Books. Contributors: Woiwode, Larry - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 121. Issue: 2574 Publication date: March 1993. Page number: 84+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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