Public Television's triumph

September 25, 1990

The presentation of the monumental television production this week of The Civil War is now almost half completed, but we have seen enough to conclude that this series has to be rated as Public Television's finest hour, to borrow Winston Churchill's extravagant term.

There has been of late a good deal of lamentation about ignorance of history among young people in this country, and indeed it is a lamentable situation when young people show, in surveys, such an appalling lack of knowledge of their nation's past that many students don't even know which sides Lee and Grant fought on. Much of that pervasive ignorance, no doubt, is merely an aspect of the Age of Television -- a time when large numbers of children are spending more time watching TV than attending class.

But The Civil War demonstrates television's capacity not merely to fill idle evening hours with trivial entertainment but rather to educate in the best sense of the word.

It will be revealing to see how The Civil War fares in the television viewer ratings -- the extent to which people take the opportunity to learn something about their country's history, or just stick with the usual fare of ephemeral pap that commercial television served up to compete with the historical documentary. Those comparisons will tell a lot about our people.

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