Monday, November 21, 2011

The Idiot Box

My wife and I do not own a television. We never had. Judging by the reviews of this year’s TV season, so far, we’re not missing much.

However, our refusal not to purchase a television isn’t really related to our dislike for what’s on television. My pet reason for not having a television is that many scholars suspect that watching even a small amount of television detracts from the ability to read well. Repeated exposure to TV develops the synapses and neural pathways in the brain that decode television; but this brain development seems strongly correlated to lack of development in the reading center of the brain. For Christians, who are people of the Word—undermining the ability to read well and deeply is a spiritual issue.

Even Camille Paglia, a famous culture critic best known for celebrating television’s role in the “repaganization of Western Culture,” understands how television is dangerous in this respect. She writes that in the second command God forbade the use of all images in heaven above and earth below because God understood that such images create a powerful, spiritual urge to ignore words. So Paglia calls for “the enlightened repression of our children,” by which she means rigorous word-centered education to the exclusion of TV, if we want our kids to become all they can be. Commenting on this insight, Neil Postman said, “With the Second Commandment, Moses was the first person who ever said, more or less, “Don’t watch TV; go do your homework.”

So what about your TV watching habits? I have a few suggestions. First, inform yourself about the State of the discussion when it comes to the benefits and risks of TV viewing, especially for children. I’d recommend Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. In my book, Not Sure, you can find a long bibliography on the relation of television to reading on page 42.

Second. Make reading together a family-time priority until well after the kids are reading on their own, a lot, with pleasure. As an added benefit, you’ll double and triple your cuddle time. My wife and I took turns reading to our children for an hour a day until the oldest was well into high school. That daily hour is easily one of our kids’ best memories of growing up.

Third. Don’t ever allow the television to play when a parent isn’t watching along. Children of all ages need instruction and wisdom about what they see on television because television mostly portrays a fanciful world without God where greed, envy, and several more of the deadly sins carry the day. That’s a very jaundiced view of how things really are; kids need another perspective to interpret TV for them.

Finally, if you don’t have time or energy for the above—and I take it that includes a lot of this blog's  readers—I have one final suggestion. It cuts through all the difficulties that go with having a television. Get rid of it.

Our family fell into life without a television when I was in seminary and couldn’t afford cable, much less the television itself. Somehow that circumstance has become a blessing that continues to give and give. Over the years we’ve avoided countless hours of uncommunicative stupefaction and had discussions, reading, and lots of other fun activities instead.

The bottom line here is that all the time and energy it takes to watch television responsibly may simply be out of reach for most of us. On the other hand, all those extra hours without a television could provide a rich, rich resource for raising kids in the way they should go. All for the price of a trip to the trash can.

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