Last Saturday I stopped at a local thrift store and found a few more treasures in the book department. One is a collection of speeches give at Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI), which are often reprinted in their monthly publication Imprimis.
The book is titled Educating for Liberty: The Best of Imprimis 1972-2002 (Hillsdale College Press, 2002), and among the great printed speeches in it is the one given by Larry Woiwode in February of 1992, the title of which is in my heading above. Woiwode is a former college professor turned novelist, and of interest to our readers, an OPC elder (For more details on him, visit his website.).
Though his speech may be a bit dated, it is a powerful description of what television has done to our reading abilities and desires. Today, we may add the book-devouring influences of laptops, video games, tablets, and “smart” phones.
You may find the entire print version at the Imprimis archives, but I give you just a few samples of what he has to say here:
What is destroying America today is not the liberal breed of one-world politicians, or the IMF bankers, or the misguided educational elite, or the World Council of Churches; these are largely symptoms of a greater disorder. If there is any single institution to blame, it is, to use the cozy diminutive, “TV”.
TV is more than a medium; it has become a full-fledged institution, backed by billions of dollars each season. Its producers want us to sit in front of its glazed-over electronic screen, press our clutch of discernment through the floorboards, and sit in a spangled, zoned-out state (“couch potatoes,” in current parlance) while we are instructed in the proper liberal tone and attitude by our present-day Plato and Aristotle-Dan Rather and Tom Brokow. These television celebrities have more temporal power than the teachings of Aristotle and Plato have built up over the centuries. Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system or government or church. Children are particularly susceptible. They are mesmerized, hypnotized and tranquilized by TV. It is often the center of their world; even when the set is turned off, they continue to tell stories about what they’ve seen on it. No wonder, then, that as adults they are not prepared for the frontline of life; they simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world.
The Truth About TV
One of the most disturbing truths about TV is that it eats books. Once out of school, nearly 60 percent of all adult Americans have never read a single book, and most of the rest read only one book a year. Alvin Kernan, author of The Death of Literature, says that reading books “is ceasing to be the primary way of knowing something in our society.” He also points out that bachelor’s degrees in English literature have declined by 33 percent in the last twenty years and that in many universities the courses are largely reduced to remedial reading. American libraries, he adds, are in crisis, with few patrons to support them. Thousands of teachers at the elementary, secondary and college levels can testify that their students’ writing exhibits a tendency towards superficiality that wasn’t seen, say, ten or fifteen years ago. It shows up not only in the students’ lack of analytical skills but in their poor command of grammar and rhetoric. I’ve been asked by a graduate student what a semicolon is. The mechanics of the English language have been tortured to pieces by TV. Visual, moving images-which are the venue of television-can’t be held in the net of careful language. They want to break out. They really have nothing to do with language. So language, grammar and rhetoric have become fractured.
Recent surveys by dozens of organizations also suggest that up to forty percent of the American public is functionally illiterate; that is, our citizens’ reading and writing abilities, if they have any, are so seriously impaired as to render them, in that handy jargon of our times, “dysfunctional”. The problem isn’t just in our schools or in the way reading is taught: TV teaches people not to read. It renders them incapable of engaging in an art that is now perceived as strenuous, because it is an active art, not a passive hypnotized state.
Passive as it is, television has invaded our culture so completely that you see its effects in every quarter, even in the literary world. It shows up in supermarket paperbacks, from Stephen King (who has a certain clever skill) to pulp fiction. These are really forms of verbal TV-literature that is so superficial that those who read it can revel in the same sensations they experience when they are watching TV. Even more importantly, the growing influence of television has, Kernan says, changed people’s habits and values and affected their assumptions about the world. The sort of reflective, critical and value-laden thinking encouraged by books has been rendered obsolete. In this context, we would do well to recall the Cyclopes-the race of giants that, according to Greek myth, predated man.