Monday, June 3, 2013

We Need the Enlightened Repression of Our Children!

            I am fascinated by the impact of widespread television watching on education, spirituality, and religion—the latter two especially as they relate to preaching. The current consensus is that watching television, as well as other electronic media, actually rewires the neural structure of the brain. This rewiring is thought to be good for some activities (spatial reasoning) and bad for others (reading). My view is that when people read less, they also read less deeply and with less understanding or pleasure. This means that traditional preaching that mimics the printed word is in deep trouble with at least a significant portion of potential audiences. Many people no longer resonate with the linear structure or abstract reasoning that is common in books. But this is complicated by the fact that since preaching is oral, listeners have to be able to handle this sort of linearity and abstractness even in the absence of a written document that can be referred back to, or reread. It goes without saying that this sea change in audience skills requires a huge adjustment on the part of preachers.

            I try not to be judgmental about the impact of new media. The church, after all, has more than a thousand years of experience with illiterate audiences, and during that time developed all sorts of amazing tools for communicating its message in the absence of widespread literacy. I discuss this in my book Not Sure. As church members drift into a new era of electronic media literacy that works against word literacy, I suppose that the church will once again eventually figure out how to communicate its message to this new audience using new strategies.

            But that doesn’t mean that high literacy doesn’t matter. I recently came upon an old article by Neil Postman and Camille Paglia entitled, “She Wants Her TV! He Wants His Book!” Neil Postman, of course, wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, as well as many other books, that decried waning literacy. Camille Paglia, who has described herself as the “high-priestess pagan TV culture” is the author of the brilliant Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Surprisinglywhere one would expect Paglia to dismiss Postman’s worries about television degrading literacy, she doesn’t. In fact, in this extended and remarkable quote, she absolutely backs him up. She says:

To me the ideal education should be rigorous and word-based—logocentric. The student must learn the logical, hierarchical system. Then TV culture allows the other part of the mind to move freely around the outside of that system . . . I want schools to stress the highest intellectual values and ideals of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. Nowadays, “logocentric” is a dirty word. It comes from France, where deconstruction is necessary to break the stranglehold of centuries of Descartes and Pascal. But to apply Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault to American culture is absolutely idiotic. We are born into an imagistic and pagan culture ruled by TV.  .  . We need to reinforce the logocentric and Apollonian side of our culture in the schools. It is time for enlightened repression of the children. (Harpers Magazine. March 1991, pp. 44-55).

            What I find remarkable about this quote is Paglia’s call for the “enlightened repression of our children.” It gets me to thinking. While preachers need to adjust their preaching strategies to the new, less literate and attention-deficit challenged audiences, they ought not give up on high literacy as a strategically important strategy for themselves and church leaders. In fact, no matter what your chosen field, high literacy can only help place you in a more influential position.

            The truth is, throughout the history of the world, even when very few people could read at all, societal leadership was always inordinately skewed to the highly literate. When nearly everyone was illiterate, educated elites still carried on immensely and still-influential philosophical and theological discussions in print. Easy access to and understanding of books facilitates leadership, critical insight, abstract thinking, and access to strategic insight. Deep literacy, in this sense, is a technology that offers the reader many resources closed to non-readers.

            What is more, as a technology, reading develops the sort of linear thinking skills that are so often critical to envisioning and engaging in long-term planning and action.

            So, whether in church or industry or academia, the secret to achieving long-term success, flourishing leadership, and personal advancement is often going to be highly related to one’s ability to read—or, in the words of Paglia, to the enlightened repression of our children.

            So what is the practical take away? I think that if you really want to give your kids a head start, one of the best things you can do is get rid of your TV. Even now, no matter how counter-cultural that move seems. Rent one for Christmas and Spring holidays, just so that your kids know what is going on in popular culture. Limit computer game playing to a minimum. And then? Read to your kids. Read endlessly and everything. Cuddle with them on the couch. Sit by their bed. Gather them round the campfire and read. Read everything. Read for fun. Do it with milk and cookies. Give them a turn to read aloud too. Make it your favourite family time, more precious than hockey or soccer or hanging out in the mall. 

            Go for the enlightened repression of your children. But have fun while you're at it. Because nothing will help your kids in school, in their careers, and in their community involvement so much as being deeply-literate readers.


  1. Glad you wrote about this. Ever consider doing a YouTube video about it? :) pvk

  2. Good idea. Maybe between my Education Committee meeting and Council Meeting, after mowing the lawn? Time is fleeting. But still, a good idea. Maybe I could get someone to interview me.

  3. On the other hand, I don't suppose that people would get it without a text.


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