We can use television to teach important lessons to children

Michael Hill

December 25, 1990|By Michael HILL

Though my offspring are not yet of the age that would bring Nintendo and its seemingly infinite electronic variations into my house and onto my television screen on this Christmas morning, I have had some contact with the passion these video games can arouse.

Many mornings, as I walk my kindergartener up to the door of his school, many among the gathered hordes of middle school kids hold in their hands tattered magazines about Nintendo games and excitedly discuss the merits and demerits of the various offerings.

To many, of course, Nintendo-like video games look like Professor Henry Hill's portrait of pool in "The Music Man," nothing more than yet another sign of the downfall of our youth into useless indolence. But I take heart at the Nintendo conversations I overhear because of what it says about the possibilities of a new attitude toward television in the next generations.

Whether or not you think TV is the root cause of the decline of Western Civilization is beside the point. Cases can be nicely constructed on both sides of that question, but the argument is over a moot point best left to the realms of sterile academia.

The fact is that television is here and is a dominate force in the consciousness of our children -- and there's not much you can do about that. TV is not about to be banned or banished or diminished. The government culture police are not going to start keeping all those offensive shows off the air, an idea you always think is great until they start tampering with your favorite show.

So, given the huge presence of television in our culture, the question then is what to do about it. For too many concerned with the fate of our youth, educators and parents alike, the reaction is to declare TV the enemy, to try to fight it at every turn, to forcibly pry the consciousness of our youth away from the electronic box and direct it toward activities deemed more appropriate.

That's a battle that is destined to be lost. Moreover, it's one that should not even be fought. A much wiser course would be to take advantage of the fact that TV is able to reach young people -- in some cases, to reach those thought to be unreachable -- and to utilize it to instill important lessons.

An English education, for example, once it's beyond spelling and grammar, should be trying not just to expose students to an approved canon of literature but, much more importantly, to teach them the skills of analysis and interpretation that can be applied to a wide variety of areas throughout their lives.

So why couldn't such skills be learned using television? Why couldn't an English teacher assign a paper on the similarities and differences between Tom Sawyer and Bart Simpson? How about looking at the views of the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and episodes of "Dynasty" and "Dallas?"

Not only would such topics take advantage of TV's appeal to further the traditional lessons, but it would also deliver another very important message, that television is not just a place you go to get your mind numbed, it is a medium that can be approached with all the analytical and interpretive abilities that one can muster.

What such an approach would demonstrate on the part of teachers and parents is that they take television seriously. Oh, certainly it can be used for frivolous relaxation, just as plenty of reading material is produced for that very purpose. But there's more there than just that.

And when you tell kids that TV is not an enemy to be avoided, but an important cultural force to be taken seriously, then they might begin to look at it in a different way. And their choices of programs may well change as, in thinking about TV for perhaps the first time, they realize the silliness of some shows and the sophistication of others.

If nothing else, parents could simply sit down and find out what their kids' favorite shows are, and then ask them to explain why, what it is that is appealing about these programs? Again, you show that you take television seriously and expect the same of them.

Our children are inundated with television, exposed to countless hours of it, almost whether they want to or not. Yet there are precious few teachers and parents who seem interested in giving kids the skills needed to interpret this flood of images. Given the current state of the world's media, not to attempt to teach children some form of video literacy is to leave a chasm in their education.

And that's why hearing those middle school kids talking about Nintendo with such passion was refreshing. They were evaluating, they were analyzing, they were interpreting. They were, unconsciously perhaps, arming themselves with the skills they will need to flourish in a world that will confront them with video images with increasing frequency.

Trying to figure out how to teach such abilities to the coming generations is worth pondering on this holiday that focuses so much of our attention the needs and desires of children.

Michael Hill covers television for The Evening Sun.

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