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Jewish World Review March 14, 2001 / 19 Adar, 5761

Michael Ledeen

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Big Bird, Oscar, and other threats -- MY mother taught reading in a public school in a bad neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, and she insisted that she never had a student who failed to learn to read. She was a great teacher, and when she died, my wife and I received letters from people we had never met, of the sort "you don't know me, but let me tell you what a great woman your mother was…" Some of them came from men and women who had gone on to great success; one had become mayor of Newark. Others were just normal people, but all were grateful that she had taught them to read.

This wonderful teacher was deeply shaken by Sesame Street, which she saw as a threat to the education of American children. She believed that Sesame Street undercut her efforts to teach her students, for reasons I believe are crucial to understanding the mounting wave of violence among our young people. First, she said, Sesame Street was passive, not active. Kids just sat in front of the tube and watched, they weren't asked to do anything. My mother knew that learning was an activity, it required students to constantly respond to challenges, and they couldn't really learn much of anything by just sitting there.

Second, Sesame Street conveyed the utterly false message that learning was "fun," a form of entertainment. From Big Bird to Oscar the Grouch, the whole thing was like an animated cartoon, something kids could laugh at, as if it were a flick. But learning isn't fun, at least in that sense; it's hard work. By entertaining the kids, Sesame Street failed to teach them how to work at learning, and indeed undercut the mental discipline required of all students, at whatever level of education.

Third, Sesame Street presented its material in short segments, typically four to six minutes each. But real learning involves expanding the attention span of students, so that they can eventually concentrate for long periods of time.

All this came to mind last week when I read a BBC article on some research on Alzheimer's, which suggested that people who spend many hours watching television when they are young are more likely to develop dementia than those who read books instead. It seems my mother was onto something, now confirmed by this research: television is bad for children. Just as my mother believed, it looks like watching television is bad, because it gets in the way of the development of the brain. We've all read about the fascinating discoveries about the "hard wiring" of the human brain in the first few years of childhood, and how crucial it is to "normal" development that we be spoken to and read to by our parents and other loving persons. The hard wiring takes place as we respond to these stimuli; the more we are stimulated, the more we react, and thus we learn to speak, and eventually to read.

Just like our muscles, the brain gets stronger when it is used, and atrophies when it isn't used. It seems that lack of use also leaves it vulnerable to degeneration later in life.

It may well be — certainly it's logical enough — that the negative effects of TV on the brain might include an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, and that some of the violence among our youth might be due to the same failure to develop the brain in a normal fashion. This combines with the other deadly effect of television: the presentation of life itself as a spectacle. Our TV-watching children increasingly view life as an entertainment extravaganza, in which they yearn to play a starring role, and here the nasty content of so much modern broadcasting comes into play. It is hard to watch an evening of TV without encountering unspeakable violence, whose perpetrators are celebrated.

Put it all together, and you've got a pretty potent brew. The remedy is as easily stated as it is impossible to administer: less television, more books, and serious conversation. And, pace Rush Limbaugh, more radio. Those of us who grew up listening to radio soaps had to use our imagination all the time, and when our favorite heroes appeared on the little screen for the first time, it was a terrible disappointment (my imagined Lone Ranger was much cooler than the skinny guy on TV, and my Tonto was infinitely more fascinating than Jay Silverheels).

It won't fly, I know. We're going to get more Alzheimer's at one end of the life cycle, and more whacked-out kids at the other.

JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Tocqueville on American Character . Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Ledeen