The Edutained American

You may try to deny it; many of us do. We are our own people, with our own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We are individuals, and nothing influences us without our knowledge and permission. Certainly not the media; we create the media, after all, and direct it with our own tastes and preferences. It is merely a part of our lives, a not-too pervasive part. We say this with absolute certainty and still know that we lie. For the media is not a part of our lives, it is our lives. It directs us, moves us towards what its creators, directors and sponsors want us to see. Everything we do is not media influenced, it is media-dictated.

In some ways, our modern information systems are helpful. They are, after all, informative. From these systems we learn, we process the information they bring on current events, popular culture, and every other subject known to man. But the information is tainted. It is filtered through the corporate sponsors and the agendas of those who bring it to us. Therefore we bow to the opinions of those who give us our knowledge on every subject they expose us to, from the clothes we buy, to the music we listen to, the films we see, books we read, politicians we vote for, religions we believe in.

Our thoughts are not our own. What does this mean to the world in which we live? How does this effect our leaders, our schools and our families? And in a society so permeated with media, how do we regain ourselves? Part One: What are our influences? For many of us who attend college now, the media has been around us since birth. The television was a effective babysitter, and we grew up accustomed to the quick, joke-a-minute style of cartoons and situation comedies. With the advent of MTV in 1981, we learned to absorb information through the two and three minute stories offered on that channel, as well as VH1 and

BET. These channels opened to us a world that most of our parents simply didnt see as children. One hour of MTVs Total Request Live can show a child a re-enactment of JFKs assassination, done by Marylin Manson, in one of the most popular videos of the week. The words of the song, however true and relevant they may be, are lost in the image, in closeup and slow motion. Vidoes by pop bands, while less violent, are no less disturbing in their objectification of humans and in their motion sickness inducing, rapid-fire images.

They cater to a generation that already suffers from hortened attention spans by providing whirling sights that can be easily understood in the half-second they are shown. They show a world of anger, violence and cynicism. True, they often reflect the feelings and actions in parts of the nation, but also bring those to the sight of impressionable children who would not otherwise have known of it until they were much older. At the same time, the video-babysitter separates child from parent and makes us reluctant to ask what these images meant.

After all, we are led to identify with the musicians and models in the videos, nd they often assure us that our parents do not understand and cannot be trusted. The information we soak up through these vignettes generally point to a distinct set of values, at odds with those of our parents. While they ask for respect and obedience within reason, we learn that adults are the outsiders, the butt of jokes and objects of ridicule, probably not very bright either. The regular television shows that we sit down to watch, often with our parents, are not much better.

It has become much cooler to defy and be irreverent than to listen. This is ertainly nothing new, one need only look at the flappers of the 1920s to see that youthful rebellion has been around for as long as anyone still alive can remember. It does seem, however, that the adolescent exuberance and resistance of the Baby Boomer generation became something very different for their children, something darker and dangerous. Of course, the television that they were raised with stressed old-fashioned family values: respect for elders, kindness to neighbors, do your homework, eat your broccoli.

The shows that children and young adults watch now are very different. We see insults thrown left and right, specially in comedies, where we learn to laugh at other peoples embarrassment and enjoy their discomfort, hoping to hone our own wit to be as sharp and cruel. Again, the jokes and images come very quickly, passing through our visual cortex and into the recesses of our brains before we have a chance to ponder, discuss, and dismiss them. The reigning kings of speedy information, of course, are television advertisements.

In these, the images zoom by so quickly that we often dont realize what we have seen and remember only one or two images, those that impress us most and make a false connection to our emotions. Advertisers count on this, of course. It is no longer enough to name the product and tell the consumer what it does and why they should buy it. We have seen enough of that, and our attention spans are bored with it. Advertisers now seek to make us identify with the actors in some way, or cause an adrenaline surge that we will thereafter associate with their product.

This method of connection is spilling over into the film industry, as well; one need only watch the recent release Fight Club to see it. The director, David Fincher, readily acknowledges the flood of imagery with the statement This is not unspooling your tale. This is downloading. (Entertainment Weekly, Nov 26 1999: 42) What, then, are we downloading? The values of modern media are clear and easily read, according to the students interviewed. Five of the students mentioned youth or physical attractiveness, or both.

This is easily explained; the casts of most television shows are under forty years old and in most cases represent the prevailing standard of beauty. Four students noticed a preoccupation with wealth and standards of living; many shows popular among young women (Beverly Hills 90210, various soap operas) showcase characters obsessed with wealth, be it their wn or someone elses. Commercials are the same: young, attractive people with middle class or higher incomes, showing how this product helped them reach, maintain, or enhance their exciting lifestyles.

None of the students mentioned intelligence, education, or respect as values portrayed in television shows or commercials. Of course, it is not that the characters are deliberately anti-intellectual or uneducated, they simply do not hold these characteristics up to be emulated. We do not respect our athletes or movie stars or even our political leaders for their knowledge and iscernment, and only sometimes for their wit or ability to think on their feet. We know what we see and how we see it, the question is, how do these values, brought to us in this rapid-fire way, affect our society?

Part Two: Truth and Consequences The great computer that is the human brain grows ever more capable of processing large amounts of information in microseconds, and we of the younger generation are accustomed to the nonstop barrage of images and information that we are faced with. Have we habitualized this behavior to the extent that we can no longer internalize information presented in other ways? The evidence seems to say yes. Three of the students interviewed listed entertaining as one of the top two qualities of a good teacher, another named it as one of the most important qualities of her favorite PSU courses.

All of these students are under the age of 30, all part of the MTV generation. In fact, all four listed MTV as one of the channels they watch most. Do they feel that our culture of entertainment and immediate gratification contributes to their need for amusement and lack of interest in classes that do not provide it? Three of the four who claimed to have short attention pans and trouble paying attention in class say that the swift parade of visions seen in their daily life may be to blame. One student who does not admit to a short attention span, but … bores easily (Int. ) believes that television shows and commercials has not affected her, but has the younger generation. Educators say this with more certainty. Altschuler states that his students comments … attest to the pervasiveness, in colleges and universities, of the same culture, obsessed as it is with entertainment and celebrities, that dominates the rest of American society. (Altschuler, April 4 1999:sect 4A) Sacks lays the blame even more firmly on the shoulders of the media and bemoans the modern students lack of ability or interest in other methods of learning.

He goes on to shift some of the responsibility to teachers, who adapt to their students requirements and entertain them. Are entertaining teachers such a bad thing? How many students, of any generation, enjoy a professor who lectures in monotone, with no videos, slides, or other teaching aids? Perhaps the new breed of educator is, in fact, good for our nation; GPAs are, after all, higher than ever in high schools and colleges. Possibly these teachers are exactly what we need; they reach the students, and if they make learning easier, then students must be learning more, correct?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. While grade point averages may be higher now, it is not the result of better teaching or more capable students, but of instructors willing to lower standards and cater to student whims. This is shown by the abysmally low scores of US students in standardized tests, from the SAT to the 3rd International Mathematics and Science Study, a test of twelfth graders, where … no other country marked lower than the US in student performance in dvanced math and science. (Christian Science Monitor, Feb 25 1998:1) Educators no longer challenge students.

They accommodate our preference for entertaining lessons and information that can be boiled down to Cliffs Notes. As a result, we are no longer competitive with students from other nations. By far the worst result of this devaluing of education, however, is the difficulties our nation will face when the reins of leadership need to be passed on. Will this generation be ready? Pronouncements by the media indicate that this generation is, at best, unconcerned with politics, nd at worst, incapable of the critical thinking needed to make political decisions.

Students who display a lack of interest in their own education and are constantly reminded that intellectual ability is not valued in popular culture can hardly be expected to develop the skills necessary to participate in government in any informed manner. An early indication of our students shortage of concern for politics can be found in the similar disinterest in schoolwork and learning. Laurence Steinberg, as reported in the Kansas City Star, says that the students failure to learn is by their own choice. .. it is a problem of attitude and effort, not ability. KC Star, Sept 1 1996:A-18) This deficiency in desire for knowledge can be traced back to the values that students see in the media. Again, the images of intelligence are not flattering. Smart characters on such shows as Married… With Children are often unattractive and the object of ridicule. Even on those shows where all of the characters are supposedly educated and of at least average intelligence, those that actively pursue higher learning and critical or theoretical thinking are odd, not a part of the main, admired pack.

All of the students interviewed, regardless of age, recognized this trend and see its application in everyday life. One of the students had this to say: Curiosity is not encouraged by your peers; if you ask questions or know the answers youre a freak. Maybe it isnt so bad in college, but by now were programmed not to excel if we want to be popular. (Int 6) Another student acknowledged that he dislikes students who ask questions in class and does want discussions to be prolonged, but would rather … et it over with. (Int 3) These students are the future of our nation. One wants to learn, but has been iscouraged, the other seems to actively avoid difficult concepts and extra work. What kind of decision-making skills have these students acquired, and what difference will this make to our system of government? It may be safe to say that the latter will not seek out information and will instead allow himself to be fed his opinions by the prevailing wind in the media.

It seems that this student is indicative of the majority of American youth, if we are to believe the numbers quoted in the Christian Science Monitor of Sept 8, 1998, which demonstrate how little US students know about our government and history. In addition to lacking the skills to make informed political decisions, the pervasiveness of the media and its effects on our learning abilities and values make our economic future bleak. When students are so accustomed to advertisements blaring in their ears that they no longer notice them, they become susceptible to the imagery in many ads.

Unless they have cultivated the ability to think analytically, there is nothing to stop sponsors from pulling consumers in whatever direction they want them to go. They will not have the intellectual means to stop corporations from telling them what they want and what is best for them. This mindless consumerism is a direct threat to democracy. As Barber states: … capitalism seeks consumers susceptible to the shaping of their needs and the manipulation of their wants while democracy needs citizens autonomous in their thoughts and independent in their deliberative judgments. Barber, 1996:15) Where will students learn autonomous thought if they refuse to learn anything that is not presented in a song-and-dance routine, which is, after all, what they are conditioned to respond to? Part Three: Regaining Ourselves What the evidence does not show is this: most students want to learn. It is not surprising that surface research often does not indicate this, and test scores and teacher evaluations do not reflect it, for students have learned nothing form the media if not how to mask their true selves.

Of the students interviewed, four believe that a B would be a reasonable average grade, rather than the traditional C average. Four students also concede that one of the top two qualities of a good teacher is the willingness to accommodate learning styles and abilities, indicating a willingness to learn within those abilities and a need for teachers who connect and work with them. The students all exhibit a preference for teachers who are helpful and who wanted to impart knowledge (Int 4).

How do we take this hidden thirst for knowledge and bring it to the forefront? First, we must counteract the principles shown in the media. It may be too much to ask that student quit watching television, listening to music, or reading magazines, but we can teach them to watch with a critical mind. We know that children begin to develop their own ethical codes very early, shaped by family and teachers. We must acknowledge, then, that the media also has the power to nfluence people, and start teaching children to observe and question as early as possible.

If we can ingrain in the young a sense of their own intelligence and give them both the tools to distinguish fact from fiction and the empowerment to assert themselves and stand by their observations, they will grow up able to find their own path without undue influence from the media corporate America. For those students already past childhood, we must decrease the stigma attached to intellectual curiosity. These students must be allowed to recognize their own potential and the need that they have to achieve it.

These students can also be taught to keep a critical eye on the world around them, and the advertisements they see. To this end, some teachers are turning corporate sponsors teaching aids against them. Ms. Beccera, a teacher in the Seattle school district, uses Hersheys The Chocolate Dream Machine to demonstrate … the art of seeing behind the image being presented (New York Times, Jan 5 1997:30). Her students will learn to question the motives and truthfulness of corporations that provide these types of aids, and, by learning to be fact-suspect, will not be so easily swayed by commercialism in the future.

Young adults and the children now coming up may have been raised in an environment permeated with harmful images, but we can learn to tune these images out. Teachers and parents need only to set an example by questioning the media themselves, and showing students that independent thought is far more valuable than any popularity promised by advertisements or wealth touted in television shows. The youth of America are absolutely capable of regaining our liberty from indifference and materialism. We can develop ideas unconstrained by the media. We have the tools to do so, we only need to be shown them.


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